The Story of Cesar: An Unremarkable Person

Submitted into Contest #109 in response to: Write about a character who leads a secret double life outside of their day job.... view prompt

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Crime Mystery Fiction

The lighting in the Sumerian galleries of the New York Museum of Art was intentionally subdued due to the fragility and extreme age of the objects on display. Astonishingly, some of the most beautiful pieces of art in these galleries were estimated to be more than four thousand years old. They provide the opportunity to explore the dimensions of an early and sophisticated civilization that flourished and then disappeared. Unfortunately, this particular collection is largely ignored by most of the visitors to the Museum in favor of more popular and well known galleries.


Cesar Milgroni, the guard pacing unobtrusively at the perimeter of one of the Sumerian galleries, would similarly be viewed as unremarkable by most visitors who encountered him. But we are about to learn that this is not correct. Cesar is both a lifelong enthusiast and expert on Sumerian art. However, his outward appearance IS quite unremarkable: mid-fifties with a small, but growing, pot belly, gray hair, and thick glasses. As was his daily custom, he was wearing a worn, three-piece charcoal suit with an ID badge attached to his right jacket lapel. To nearly everyone visiting the Museum, he was almost invisible. 


One such visitor, an elderly woman, scurried past him in a disoriented way and then made a rapid U-turn and approached him. “Can you direct me to the ladies,” she asked somewhat breathlessly? He responded in a soothing, measured tone with a half smile: “Proceed through the next two galleries, take a right turn in the hallway, and the rest rooms will be on your right.” The guest, pleased to have received clear directions, mumbled “thank you” and walked in the direction Cesar had indicated.


Very easy to ignore as a “mere” museum guard, Cesar’s story was much more interesting. He was raised in Paris as the only child of working class parents born in Italy. He was fortunate and talented enough to have attended the Sorbonne on scholarship and earned a Ph.D. in Akkadian and Sumerian Studies. He emigrated to the U.S. in his early 30’s with the intention of seeking an academic position in Near Eastern Art perhaps at a small private college but he was never able to obtain the necessary entrée into academia, lacking both references and connections to this rarified world. He was thus forced by circumstances to seek employment elsewhere.


The next best option for him at the time, which he did pursue, was to apply to the New York Museum of Art as a guard and was accepted for the position. He was initially assigned to Medieval Art but eventually was placed in the Sumerian rooms, which was his first choice and first love. He failed to mention in his job application that he had earned a Ph.D. in Sumerian art because he thought he would have been considered as overqualified for such a position. For him, being a museum guard, constantly surrounded by pieces of art that he truly worshipped, was a dream come true. The art created an delightful aura for him on a daily basis. He was a truly happy man and who among us can make a similar statement?


On one previously uneventful day and as Cesar was traversing the perimeter of one of his assigned galleries, he noticed a visitor in an expensive suit huddled with a companion near a display case. It contained a number of small but extremely valuable gold and clay Sumerian objects. Cesar recognized the visitor immediately as Mohammed Narbeen, a well known dealer in Sumerian antiquities. He had a keen interest in what the pair were discussing, assuming that it could be relevant to Cesar’s special interests. Unfortunately, they were located out of earshot. What to do? Perhaps try to sidle up to them to hear fragments of their conversation. It then dawned on him that he had a far better way to eavesdrop on their conversation.


The acoustics in the gallery had a special quality that was unrecognized by most but well known to Cesar. There were two well defined acoustic spots in the room, separated by perhaps twenty feet, whereby a person in one of them could hear the conversations of people in the other distant one distinctly and without any special effort or technology. He thus decided to take the necessary actions to allow him to hear what Mohammed and his friend were talking about. As luck would have it, Mohammed and his colleague were located only three feet from one of these two spots. He only had to nudge them a few feet to overhear what they were discussing if he were then to walk to the second one. 


Cesar quickly approached on of the visitors seated in a wheel chair and said softly: “Let me help you get nearer to the best display case in the room.” In so doing and pushing the wheelchair, he gently nudged Mohammed and his friend to one of the two acoustic spots just described. Cesar then quickly retreated to the other one. He theatrically turned his back on the two visitors to make his lack of interest in their conversation more believable. This is what he heard, punctuated by partial unintelligible passages:


Mohammed: “…all you need to do is stand next to the reclining doe figurine in the display case, express great pleasure out loud upon seeing it, and take eight or nine pictures...special camera ....Don’t take all of the pictures at one go. Shoot a couple, stroll away for a few minutes,…return and take another two or three and…take the rest. The camera is autofocus …light in the gallery is sufficient. Get going now.”


Friend: “…going to do with them.”


Mohammed: “…my business!”


Friend: “You said that we were partners….Unless…understand the process, we will call it quits now.”


Mohammed: “OK. We upload the camera images…program that analyzes them and generates code…3D printer….Create a plastic model of the statue...will hammer sheets of gold…the entire piece. Then dissolve the model…acid, dent the gold figure to ‘distress’ it, and bury it in dirt…age it. Make only two…Then we will sell... them for 2-3 million... Market not...suspicious of small number appearing...”


Friend: “Why…gold. It’s expensive. Raise…costs. Clay cheaper.


Mohammed: “That’s why I am in charge of…this operation and not you…friend. Mass spec…cops use to identify ancient clay. Gold is gold. That’s also why we work figurine…smooth rocks…no modern identifying marks…No hammer marks…surface.


Mohammed and his friend, having taken their images with their specialized camera of the ancient figurine, quickly departed from the gallery. Cesar, having heard the entire conversation, walked into the adjacent gallery and stopped near one of the corners. “Mohammed, you rat,” he muttered to himself, “I have got you at last."


***


The next day was Cesar’s day off and also the weekend. He was sitting by himself on a bench in Central Park near Turtle Pond. He pulled a burner phone out of his pocket and dialed, by memory, the New York City Antiquities Trafficking Unit. This unit was under the supervision of the Manhattan District Attorney and well regarded around the world for its talent and efficiency. 


“I would like to speak to Mr. Anderson,” he said when the phone was answered by a receptionist. There was about a five-second delay.


“Anderson speaking,” he heard. “Who is this and how can I help you?”

“Mr. Anderson, this is Confidential Informant #33 with a special piece of information for you. Do you have a minute?”


“Proceed, please. I am taking notes,” Anderson replied slowly and cautiously.


“The purpose of my call today is to offer to you some new information about Mohammed Narbeen. He is the proprietor of a well established antiquities gallery on Madison. He is manufacturing and trafficking in fake Sumerian objects. The pieces are constructed on the basis of photos he is taking of articles in the New York Museum of Art collection with a special camera. I am suggesting respectfully that you may want to ‘visit’ his gallery in about three week’s time to catch him in the act."


The fakes are probably being manufactured in a workshop at the back of the gallery or in the basement. The presence of a 3-D printer will be a major clue that you are in the right spot as well as sheets of gold, probably stored in a safe. I also suspect that you may also find in the workshop a gold figurine of a reclining doe buried in an earth-filled container somewhere in the workshop to age it. That’s all that I have for you now. I will report back if I acquire any more relevant information on this case if you need it, he said.” Cesar hung up the line abruptly.


***


It was Monday morning at 10:00 a.m., the opening hour for the Museum. Cesar was standing, per usual, in the main Sumerian gallery, slightly propped up by one of the walls when the curator of the entire collection entered the room. Her name was Gloria LeFarge who and, coincidentally, had also trained at the Sorbonne. She knew about Cesar’s advanced degree but, by mutual agreement, did not inform museum personnel about this. She spoke to Cesar in a very low tone, confident that no one could overhear their conversation. “What do you have for me today, Cesar?”


“There is a an elderly Iranian widow living in Paris named Mehri Khorasani. She has a collection of about 15 high quality Sumerian clay and metal objects. Her son has extensive gabling debts amounting to several millions and the Mafia is holding the paper. They are also getting tired of waiting. She is desperate to make good on the debt and help her son but is short of ready cash. If you are interested in purchasing any of the objects for the Museum, offer her about 50% of her asking price. You can inspect them in her apartment in Paris by appointment. I will give you the name of the intermediary for the sale.”


“I also own one small carved ivory Sumerian bas-relief that you may want to purchase to round out the Museum’s collection. It has been in my possession for more than thirty years and I will naturally provide you comprehensive provenance for it. Such a purchase by the Museum would need to be on a strictly confidential basis and the price reflects this restriction. The price is $300,000 and non-negotiable. I can provide you with pictures of the object for your consideration and also set up a live viewing under controlled circumstances. The sale would be processed through a third party whose name I can provide to you if you want to proceed.”


***


That night, Cesar was relaxing at his primary residence. It was a pre-war four-bedroom condominium on the upper east side in a doorman building that he had owned and resided in for more than 20 years. Its market value was in the millions. His residence of record for his museum employment was a walkup efficiency in Brooklyn that he rented out. 


He sat back in his chair and surveyed his large living room which contained about a dozen Sumerian artifacts arrayed around the room on tables and in bookshelves. They were all authentic and purchased by him over the course of many years through different channels. He was willing and able to sell any of them at the right time and price to a reputable buyer, preferably to a well-known museum.


“Ah well,” he leaned back in his chair and sighed, mumbling to himself. “This was a good month. Mohammed Narbeen will not be around for long. Quelle fou. Over the years, I never trusted either him or any of his associates. He was constantly flouting the law. However, he now has piqued my interest with his new fabricating approach for objets d’art.” Cesar started pacing around the room. 


“I think that I will now turn my attention to 3D printers and new molding materials as well as gold.” He then paused and presented to himself the following gnarly question: “Is there such a thing as an ‘authentic fake’ that is so close to the original that it is indistinguishable from it and therefore carries almost the same value and intrinsic worth? I will ponder this in the upcoming days.”


He then shuffled off to bed for a restful night.

September 03, 2021 01:25

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2 comments

John Hanna
01:11 Sep 19, 2021

Great story, but Cesar sounds a little lonely.

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Bruce Friedman
02:10 Sep 19, 2021

Very good point. To what extent are you responsible for the happiness and contentedness of the characters you create? Cesar had found his niche and was fine in terms of creature comforts. I think that his major joy in life was outwitting people who though they were smarter than him.

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