The Dante Deception: The most dangerous enemy is the one closest to your heart.

Chapter One

April 1967
Unterlengenhardt, West Germany

The old woman cackled as a dog snatched the sandwich from her lap. The German shepherd carried the sandwich into a corner and nosed the black bread aside to get at the spicy sausage.

Christof Ehrlichmann held his breath. There were three half-eaten sandwiches under the couch. The cats—thirty, at last count—had coated the floor and furniture in urine. He had no idea how the old woman managed to eat anything without throwing up.

“Irma,” the woman said. “Make me another sandwich. Baby is wearing the first one.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” his mother said, hurrying into the kitchen.

Christof glared at her. If he dripped a single speck of paint on the floor, she sent him to bed without supper. But people believed this filthy creature was a princess, so they let her do things even children knew they shouldn’t.

He looked at the old woman’s sweater, its sleeves streaked with excrement. The first thing his mother did when they arrived was open a window. Usually, the woman slammed it shut, her frail arms shaking with effort. “How dare you expose me to them!” she’d cry. “You know they want to kill me! Have you forgotten who I am and what I know?”

“No one wants to kill you,” his mother always said.

“No one wants to kill you,” his mother always said.

“Everyone wants to kill me,” she’d reply. “Even you.”

Today, she’d left the window open. A breeze twirled the threads of the curtain’s cat-clawed hem. It still smelled of death. The old woman buried animals by wrapping them in newspaper and setting them in the yard. “It stinks here,” he said. “I want to go home.”

“Christof,” his mother snapped. “Don’t speak like that in front of her.”

The woman, called Anastasia, was supposed to be the daughter of a murdered king. Her house, a filthy barracks behind a six-foot fence, didn’t look like a princess’s castle. But inside, he’d discovered a fair amount of treasure. The tabletops were stacked with books, gilded photo frames, and jewel-studded icons. When no one was looking, he traced the unfamiliar Cyrillic inscriptions in his notebook.

Nothing about the woman herself, however, resembled a princess. Her hair was short and white. Her lips were crooked and she hid them when she talked. Her eyes were blue, appropriate for a princess, but something still wasn’t right. Other blue things, like cornflowers or the river Neckar, got darker the deeper you looked. The old woman’s eyes had no depth, no darkness. The only thing inside them was nothing.

That’s when he realized—she had no idea who she was.

That’s when he realized—she had no idea who she was.

Her visitors couldn’t see it. They came in long black cars, the women in filmy skirts and the men in tweed jackets. They bowed and pressed their lips to her speckled hand, licked by a dog only moments ago. “Your Imperial Highness,” they called her. Sometimes they gave her money. If they didn’t, the old woman held a napkin to her face and demanded they leave her alone. His mother would escort the astonished guest to the door, apologizing for the woman’s behavior.

It mystified him that anyone could leave this house still believing her a princess.

His mother emerged from the kitchen with another sandwich, bowing as she set it on the table.

Christof looked away. He didn’t want to see the old woman chew with her mouth open again. Through the slats of the fence, he saw a car pull up and its driver get out. “Mutti! Someone’s outside.”

“No, no, no, no, no.” The woman moaned and slumped in her seat. “Make them go away.”

“They will,” Christof said. “As soon as they smell you.”

His mother pinched his neck. “She needs our help, and we must give it. Do you want me to take away your paint?”

She doesn’t need our help, he thought. She needs a laundress and a straitjacket. But the threat of losing his paint was enough to silence him as his mother met the man outside and escorted him to the threshold. The old woman reached for a sodden newspaper and crumpled it, holding it over her mouth.

She doesn’t need our help, he thought. She needs a laundress and a straitjacket. But the threat of losing his paint was enough to silence him as his mother met the man outside and escorted him to the threshold. The old woman reached for a sodden newspaper and crumpled it, holding it over her mouth.

Christof gagged.

The visitor, a tall man with a thin moustache, removed his hat. His suit was crisp, with a sharp crease down the center of each leg. He’ll see, Christof thought. He’ll take one look at her and know she isn’t a princess.

“Your Highness,” the man said, “my name is Edward Turner. My father was a soldier in the Great War. He was injured on the Eastern Front, and taken to your hospital in Tsarskoe Selo.”

“War,” the woman mumbled. “It all started with the war.”

“It changed all of us, Your Highness.”

Her rheumy eyes narrowed. “Did it destroy you? Did it rob you of everyone you ever loved?”

“No, Your Highness.”

“Then do not compare your suffering to mine!”

“I didn’t mean to upset you, Your Highness. I just wanted to pay my respects.”

The old woman paused, inspecting him over the edge of her newspaper. “You may enter.”

The old woman paused, inspecting him over the edge of her newspaper. “You may enter.”

Of course he can, Christof thought. He said the magic word—pay. His mother guided the stranger to the old woman’s chair and came to stand in front of him, blocking his view. “Mutti,” he said softly, tugging on her apron strings. She swatted him without turning around.

Turner dropped to one knee beside the old woman. “My father’s name was Peter. He said you spoke to him once. Do you remember him?”

She lowered the newspaper and clenched it in her disgusting hand. “What did I say?”

“I was hoping you could tell me. My father wouldn’t talk about the war. The only thing he said had no words at all.”

“What was it?” Christof asked, leaning around his mother.

Turner flashed him a ghost of a smile. “A leg, gone below the knee.”

Riding bikes, running, jumping, swimming…he couldn’t imagine all that being taken away. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Hospital,” the old woman muttered. “I had a hospital?”

His mother nodded. “With your sister. You worked there together.” She’d read a book about the murdered princess’s family and considered herself an expert now. His mother trusted books too much. “Do you remember, Your Highness?”

His mother nodded. “With your sister. You worked there together.” She’d read a book about the murdered princess’s family and considered herself an expert now. His mother trusted books too much. “Do you remember, Your Highness?”

Nein! You would never ask me that if you had seen the things I have seen!”

Here it comes, Christof thought. When faced with something she couldn’t remember, the old woman claimed not to want to remember. With shouts and tears, she abused the person who asked. Because they thought she was royalty, they didn’t press her. But playground bullies did the same thing every day, until someone refused to give in. Had grown-ups forgotten how everything really worked?

He slid down from his chair and stepped out from behind his mother. “What did you say to this man’s father?”

“Christof!” His mother picked him up and spun, depositing him behind her. “Forgive him, Your Highness. He didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Yes, I did! I want her to help this man.”

“It’s nothing, really,” Turner said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come.” He stepped back and his heel came down on a cat’s tail. The cat howled and hissed as Turner’s cheeks ripened like cherries.

Christof glared at the woman’s loose, flappy lips. All this man wanted was a word about his father, and she didn’t even have the decency to lie. “Tell him! If you really were the princess, you’d tell him.”

Christof glared at the woman’s loose, flappy lips. All this man wanted was a word about his father, and she didn’t even have the decency to lie. “Tell him! If you really were the princess, you’d tell him.”

“And who are you,” she hissed, “to give orders to the daughter of an emperor?”

“You’re no one! You’re lying and I hate you!”

The electric crack of his mother’s palm against his cheek stole his breath. He looked into her eyes, but there was no softness, no hint of regret. “Mutti, she’s not who she says she is.”

“You’re a stupid child, Christof, speaking of things you cannot understand.”

But I do understand, he wanted to say. She told a lie and you believe it, and now people kiss her hand and make her sandwiches and pretend she doesn’t sleep in a room full of animal feces. His mother, the old woman, the man…they all wanted him to be quiet so they could go on believing a lie. “She’s not who she says she is! Why can’t any of you see it?”

His mother gripped his face in one hand, squeezing until his teeth cut the tender flesh of his cheeks. “You think you’re special, don’t you? You think you know so much that it makes you better than the rest of us?”

Blood and saliva pooled in his mouth. His eyes burned with tears.

Blood and saliva pooled in his mouth. His eyes burned with tears.

“I’ve caused too much trouble,” Turner said. “And I apologize. But if I may, Your Highness…”

“Yes?” the false princess said.

The man reached into his pocket. Christof twisted in his mother’s grip to see what he held. It was a photo of a man in a hospital bed. Two girls stood behind him with smiling blurry faces. “It was the only thing my father had to give. I’d be honored if you would sign it for me.”

The old woman reached for the photo, curling it in her filthy hand as she picked up a pen. She drew a pointed arc—an A—the first letter in a name that wasn’t hers. Christof saw her hesitate twice during the inscription, as if she didn’t remember how to form the letters. “Life is hard now,” she said, handing it back to Turner. “It is not like it was then.”

“I understand.” Turner reached into his pocket. “If I may…”

“No!” Christof shouted. “That’s what she wants!” His warning emerged as a gurgle, launching a flue of blood and saliva onto his mother’s hand.

She shrieked and pushed him away.

The marmalade cat under his feet howled when he stepped on it.

He lost his balance.

His arms flailed, but they couldn’t save him. As he fell, he saw Turner hand a stack of bills to the old woman. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am, Your Highness.”

But I told him the truth, Christof thought. And it didn’t matter at all.

But I told him the truth, Christof thought. And it didn’t matter at all.

Behind the blood-red rush of anger, the realization came: Turner wanted to be deceived.

Christof smiled.

So let it be, he thought, as his head struck the table and a white light exploded behind his eyelids. I warned them.

Chapter Two

September 4, 1972
Montréal, Canada

Augustus Wolverton Sinclair, seventh Baron Leighton, tightened his grip on the painting he’d come for. The Frenchmen had already stripped the backings, extracted the canvases, and smashed the frames of the others on his list. “Allez,” he said, stepping over splintered wood and canvas shavings. “Nous sommes finis.”

Mais il y’en a plus.” Yves pointed to the far gallery, where three guards lay bound and gagged.

“I don’t care,” Sinclair said, pulling a Smith & Wesson Model 36. “Start loading.”

Anger brightened the younger man’s eyes, but he held his tongue. He bent over the pile stacked in the doorway and scooped up a Picasso.

Sinclair let out his breath. Art students. French art students. What had he been thinking?

Sinclair let out his breath. Art students. French art students. What had he been thinking?

All they had to do was prop open the service door and transfer the jewelry and paintings to the panel van. Alain, their climber, had already loaded the Rembrandt and a Gainsborough. When the theft was discovered, everyone would think he’d been after one of them.

It bought him time, but not much.

He still had to figure out how to get in and out of Moscow undetected. He didn’t trust Russians in general, and his client in particular, but the inheritance taxes were due on Rocksavage and his mother was buried in the family plot. Losing either was not an option.

Sinclair pinched the bridge of his nose. What had the poet said? Something about miles to go and promises to keep. Typically American, bland and dogged, but with a terse merit he admired. Someday he’d visit the cities they said compared with his own. Princess Margaret had quite liked New York, he heard.

A piercing electronic wail dissolved his memory of the princess.

Sinclair froze. The contractor repairing the skylight had assured him a rooftop entry wouldn’t trigger the alarm. “That lying bastard,” he hissed.

Yves dashed back into the room. “What the hell is going on?”

Spiked boot soles clanked behind him. Alain reappeared with a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun under his right arm. “We need to go—get in the van.”

Spiked boot soles clanked behind him. Alain reappeared with a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun under his right arm. “We need to go—get in the van.”

“No.” If the contractor had lied about the alarm, he might also have lied about the museum’s van. For all he knew, it had no petrol or a potato in the tailpipe. Once upon a time, thieves had helped each other out of professional courtesy. Now it was every man for himself. “Get the Rembrandt and the Gainsborough. Carry what else you can.”

“We’re going on foot?”

“Unless you had the foresight to park an unregistered car nearby, in which case I would mistake that foresight for prior knowledge of such a need.” He drew back the hammer for show. “And then I’d have to kill you.”

“My brother has the shotgun,” Yves said. “You don’t have time to kill both of us.”

“I don’t have to.” Sinclair shifted his gaze to the younger brother. The boy’s forehead gleamed with sweat and he hadn’t even raised the gun yet. “Keep the Rembrandt. You earned it.”

“What about me?” Yves asked.

“There’s a Tintoretto by the door. You’re holding a Picasso.”

“Let’s go,” Alain said. He turned and fled through the service door.

Sinclair smiled at Yves. “After you.”

Sinclair smiled at Yves. “After you.”

Yves stuffed a handful of jewels in his pocket, grabbed a stack of canvases, and ran. Sinclair slid the revolver into its holster and reached for a few small landscapes as he passed. His heart quivered at the sight of an El Greco lying frameless on the floor, but he had what he’d come for. The rest couldn’t be helped.

They ran out the side door, past the ladder still propped against the museum’s granite exterior. Two blocks down Sherbrooke, Sinclair cut left and pressed himself around the corner of another tall building. Alain stopped to rebalance the canvases clutched to his chest. The shotgun slid out from under his arm and he grasped at it awkwardly. “What now?”

“Now,” Sinclair panted, “we bid each other adieu.”

Yves and Alain exchanged a glance. “And then?”

“If you have the Tintoretto, the Italians will probably be interested. Get thirty percent of market value in cash, and you can live happily ever after as an art school dropout.”

“Is that what you’re going to do?” Yves asked.

“Of course not.” Sinclair shuffled through his stack and pulled out a brown landscape of trees and cows. “I’d never enroll in art school to begin with. Here. This is for you.”

It had caught his eye when they pulled it off the wall. Signed Brueghel, the light falling on the horseflesh was right, but the windmill lacked dignity, the blades of grass lacked distinction, and the bird was anemic. He’d be damned if Brueghel—whose graceful avians flocked as warnings to the humans in and out of his paintings—had signed his name to that single blurry fleck of a bird. “This should set you up nicely.”

Yves pointed at the only painting still in its frame, clutched in Sinclair’s gloved hands. “I want that one.”

Yves pointed at the only painting still in its frame, clutched in Sinclair’s gloved hands. “I want that one.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

Yves snapped his fingers and Alain hefted the shotgun. “You haven’t let go of that painting all night. You already have a buyer willing to pay, non? Give me the Corot.”

Sinclair swore. He was as good as dead if he obeyed. The boys might damage the painting or sell it to another before he had a chance to stop it. His client had made it clear that only one outcome was acceptable. “You’ll regret this.”

Yves’s teeth were yellow and bent, like eroded tombstones. “Je crois que non.”

Sinclair’s fingers itched for the Smith & Wesson. It was just a game for these two, a chance to earn some extra money and put one over on the art world that had shattered their dreams. They knew nothing of love, desperation, or the weight of expectation. He felt older than his thirty-two years. “This is your last chance.”

“No,” Yves said, holding out his hand. “It is yours.”

Sinclair raised his arm over his head and whirled his index finger. A Luton van on the opposite side of the street roared to life. The driver pulled up alongside them, facing the wrong way on a one-way street.

“You planned this!” Yves snapped. “You meant to abandon us so they would catch us first!”

“You planned this!” Yves snapped. “You meant to abandon us so they would catch us first!”

“No,” Sinclair said. “But it would have been nice.” He slapped the roller back door with an open palm. “Let’s go.”

Alain hooked a finger around the shotgun’s trigger. “How do we know this isn’t a trap?”

“You don’t,” Sinclair said. “But the alarm has been ringing for three minutes now. You can run, carrying all those canvases, or you can come with me and continue our negotiations far from the Golden Mile.”

The brothers exchanged glances.

The sky was still black, but the first slivers of dawn would seek them out soon and they knew it.

The sky was still black, but the first slivers of dawn would seek them out soon and they knew it.

Yves nodded their acceptance.

Sinclair flipped the metal latch on the roller door. He flung it up and jumped aside.

Two flashes of light burst from the darkness.

Two bodies fell to the pavement below.

Sinclair breathed a sigh of relief.

Chapter Three

October 1972
The Black Forest, West Germany

The Mercedes rumbled down the dark forest lane, black smoke billowing from the tailpipe. Sinclair glanced at the temperature gauge and grimaced. Time was running out and he still hadn’t found the turnoff to the old man’s cottage.

The last time he’d come, they met in town for a drink. Best beer he’d ever had—thick as Marmite, and sweeter the warmer it got. But the man was nearly eighty now and rarely left home. His memory isn’t what it used to be, his wife said. That nosy bartender asks what you’re doing, and Gerhardt’s likely to tell him. How long do you think we’ll last if that happens?

Sinclair stepped on the brake and looked out the window. At this point, he could keep going and hope the engine didn’t overheat, or turn around and find someone to guide him. The sun was setting big and round, like the pool of blood on the floor of the Luton van.

He gripped the steering wheel and slid his knuckles toward the sky. It couldn’t be helped, he thought. They made you do it. The engine made a noise that sounded like a moan. It would be dark soon, and cold. There were no lights along the road.

He shifted into reverse and backed from the dirt road to the paved. A hundred yards down the road, something caught his eye—a flash of yellow against the forest’s unrelenting gray. He slowed the car as he approached and leaned over to roll down the passenger window. “Guten Abend,” he said.

The boy—not yet a teenager, still wearing a child’s rucksack—gave him a cold stare. “What do you want?”

The boy—not yet a teenager, still wearing a child’s rucksack—gave him a cold stare. “What do you want?”

“I’m supposed to meet a friend of mine, but I think I’ve lost my way. I’m a tourist, you see, and these unmarked roads are difficult to navigate.”

“A tourist wouldn’t have friends here.” The boy paused. “No one does.”

“Call it business, then.”

The boy dipped his chin into the neck of his parka. Sharp cheekbones echoed the fierce look in his blue eyes. “Did you come to see her? If you did, you’re a few years too late.”

“I came to see a man.”

“Tourists always ask about her. They want to see where she lived.”

“Who?”

“They think she’s a Russian princess. They call her Anna Anderson.”

Sinclair tilted his head. There had been quite a row in London over this woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia: Is she, isn’t she, did anyone survive the massacre in Ekaterinburg, was there really a secret tsarist fortune hidden away? “She was here? In this godforsaken place?”

Sinclair tilted his head. There had been quite a row in London over this woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia: Is she, isn’t she, did anyone survive the massacre in Ekaterinburg, was there really a secret tsarist fortune hidden away? “She was here? In this godforsaken place?”

“I could take you there.” The boy’s eyes swept the length of the car, taking in the make, model, and generally deplorable condition.

Sinclair recognized that mercenary glint, along with the sudden desire to be helpful. It might have been Harrow, eighteen years ago, when he’d been the forgotten boy angry at the whole world. “I’m late for a meeting, but perhaps we can come to an agreement.”

The boy shifted his weight. “What do you want?”

“I want you to get in the car.” Sinclair felt the boy’s eyes travel from his gloved hands to his wool overcoat to the leather attaché case on the floor. “I’m harmless, I assure you.”

“Even if you aren’t, I can handle myself.” The boy reached for the door handle and slipped inside. “So who’s your friend?”

“What’s your name?”

“Christof.”

“How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Aren’t you going to ask me what my name is?”

“I don’t care,” the boy said. “This car isn’t yours, is it?”

“I don’t care,” the boy said. “This car isn’t yours, is it?”

“No,” Sinclair said. “It’s not.”

“It needs work. I might be able to help, for the right price.”

Sinclair laughed. “Let’s just get to Brodbeckgasse, shall we?”

“Turn around, take your first right, go about five hundred meters. The house you’re looking for is in a grove of pine trees on the right. You can’t see it from the road.”

“How do you know that’s the house I’m looking for?”

“There’s no such place as Brodbeckgasse, but there is such a person as Gerhardt Brodbeck.”

“Fair enough,” Sinclair said. “Let’s see how far this car will take us, shall we?” He followed Christof’s directions, which led him precisely to Brodbeck’s door. He switched off the engine and a cloud of steam billowed from the bonnet. “Best to let it rest a bit, I think. Do you mind waiting here while I meet my friend? Is there anyone who’ll be worried about you?”

The boy turned and stared into the forest. “No.”

“I’ll try to be quick,” he said, glancing at Christof’s ungloved hands and bare head. “We’ll get something to eat before you show me where your grand duchess lived.”

“I’ll try to be quick,” he said, glancing at Christof’s ungloved hands and bare head. “We’ll get something to eat before you show me where your grand duchess lived.”

“She’s not my—” the boy began. “That is, she’s not here anymore. But she did leave some things behind. No one knows I have them. I’ll show them to you if…”

“If the price is right,” Sinclair said, smiling. “I think we can work something out.”

***

The boy ate as if he’d never tasted spätzle before. The tavern didn’t have anything other than schnitzel and spätzle, but Christof devoured a plate of each. Sinclair sipped his doppelbock—Good God, how did they get it so thick?—and kept up an easy chatter devoid of significance. The room was warm, thanks to the logs smoldering in the fireplace, and he was in no hurry. The package from the old man was in the boot of the Mercedes, wrapped in butcher’s paper and tied with string the color of Christof’s parka. He didn’t believe in signs and had no superstitions. He preferred to think of such occurrences as happy reminders of things he already knew.

The boy was a find.

He’d come out of the old man’s cottage to find Christof in the passenger seat with the heater on, the car’s engine purring. “That’ll be a thousand marks,” the boy said, looking up at him without a shred of guilt. He’d gladly paid the car’s ransom, dropping the bills into the boy’s oil-streaked hand.

At least he’d thought it was oil until the boy returned from the toilets, hands washed, with round black specks still dotting his right fingers. It was all he could do to hide the smile that threatened to splash across his face. Gerhardt was finished; his hands shook with a palsy that had almost turned the Corot into a Monet.

Sinclair waited until Christof pressed his fork over a single crumb. Then he sat back, crossed his legs, and raised his glass. “Now, what can you tell me about that grand duchess?”

Sinclair waited until Christof pressed his fork over a single crumb. Then he sat back, crossed his legs, and raised his glass. “Now, what can you tell me about that grand duchess?”

Christof’s jawline hardened. “She lived in a barracks. Local women would come to take care of her. She moved away a few years ago, but everyone still wants to know something about her. Or touch something she touched.” He glanced at the bartender, drying beer steins with a towel. “Sometimes they want to buy things that belonged to her.”

“And you can make that happen?” Sinclair said softly.

Christof’s gaze stayed with the bartender. His left hand slipped down to his rucksack. A few deft movements of his fingers and he pulled something up to the table.

A photograph.

Sinclair slid the photo toward him, inspecting it under the table. It was old, printed on thick corrugated paper. It showed two girls in white dresses, sitting primly on fauteuil chairs. Both had chubby cheeks, but only one was beautiful. “Which one is she?”

“The pretty one,” the boy said quickly. “She signed it for me.”

Sinclair looked at the signature. Deep black ink, probably iron gall, thick nib, Cyrillic characters. The “A” was sharply pointed, but the “Я” was loose and unformed. He looked the boy in the eye. “Did she…sign…anything else for you?”

Christof reached into his rucksack. He brought up three more photographs and slid them across the table: one glossy, one matte, and a postcard on cream-colored stock. Each bore the same signature: Анастазия. Sinclair made sure to frown as he asked, “How did you get these?”

Christof reached into his rucksack. He brought up three more photographs and slid them across the table: one glossy, one matte, and a postcard on cream-colored stock. Each bore the same signature: Анастазия. Sinclair made sure to frown as he asked, “How did you get these?”

“My mother worked for her.”

“And she liked you?”

The boy’s thin lips quivered. “She would have done anything for me.”

He can’t lie, Sinclair thought, not with his voice and not with his face. But on paper, he was brilliant. For a twelve-year-old to forge a believable signature in a foreign alphabet was quite an achievement. To do it consistently from photo to photo was another thing entirely. The signatures weren’t the product of a stamp—they were each hand drawn, yet nearly identical. The control exhibited in letter formation, spacing, stroke width, and height was unbelievable. “These are good,” he said. “Very good.”

Christof’s eyes flashed toward the bartender. “I’ll give you a fair price to say thank you for buying me dinner.”

“I’m sure we can make a deal.”

“Not a deal.” The boy shook his head. “I’ll name my price, and you’ll accept or decline.”

“Not a deal.” The boy shook his head. “I’ll name my price, and you’ll accept or decline.”

“Tell me how you learned to forge this signature and I won’t tell your mother that her little boy is robbing helpless tourists.”

“You don’t believe these signatures are real?”

“My dear boy, I know they aren’t.”

“Prove it.”

He pointed at Christof’s hand. “The ink is still on your fingers because you made these in the car while I met with Mr. Brodbeck. You had to camouflage the ink stains, so you fiddled with the engine, and by luck or other means, you actually fixed it. Were I to look in that rucksack, I’d probably find the pen, ink, and nib you used to make these fine trinkets here, along with—stop me if I’m wrong—a fresh supply of unsigned photos and cards?”

The boy’s cheeks reddened. His hands gripped the seat of his chair.

“Don’t be afraid,” Sinclair said softly. Across the room, a fire popped and hissed, sending orange sparks in asymmetrical arcs toward the floor. He could have sworn they all imitated the sweep of the boy’s A. “I have no intention of turning you in. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

“What do you want, then?”

He picked up his stein and drained the last delicious gulp. “Isn’t your mother worried about her boy having dinner with a strange man after dark?”

“My mother is dead,” Christof said. “I do what I want.”

“My mother is dead,” Christof said. “I do what I want.”

“Who takes care of you?”

“No one.”

“What do you mean, no one?”

“I’m dead, too.”

“You look real to me.”

“I meant on paper.”

Sinclair set down his stein. “Do you mean to tell me you forged your own death certificate?”

The boy smiled. “And paid a man to file it for me.”

“So you’re a ghost.”

“So you’re a ghost.”

“I like it that way.”

“How would you like to be a ghost who paints?”

“Oil or watercolor?”

This gets better and better, Sinclair thought. The beer had brought a haze to the room, but it wasn’t the only reason he felt like laughing. The boy was small for twelve, with the sallow skin of the undernourished. Dark blond hair hung to his ears. The ends were uneven, as if he cut them himself with scissors.

He held up his empty stein to catch the bartender’s attention. “Bring me another,” he said. And then, with a glance at Christof, “Make that two.”

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“The two sisters and their relationship is one to remember. How Beth handles Natalie’s “problem” is a lesson about patience and love we could all learn from.”

“Ms. Wiltz has made her characters COME ALIVE.”


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