Blue Balliett

Excerpt from Chasing Vermeer

Three mysterious letters carry a warning; a young girl stumbles onto an old book; a young boy finds messages in 12 puzzle pieces. Seemingly unconnected events weave together and catapult 12-year-old friends Petra and Calder into a mystery so tangled, it’s stumped the art world for centuries. Now the duo must rely on each other and trust in themselves, the future of a priceless piece of art — and their very safety — depend on it.

Get pulled into the excitement of Chasing Vermeer with this sample chapter.

Chapter Eleven: Nightmare

At 7:30 on the morning of November 5, Calder was hunting for his sneakers. Petra was looking under the living room sofa for the hairbrush. Both reached their kitchens at the same moment.

In the Pillay household, Calder’s parents were pouring juice, pulling out cold cereal boxes, and talking. Calder caught the words “tragic” and “shocking.”

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

In Petra’s kitchen, her mom was making cheese sandwiches and talking to her dad. Petra heard her mother say, “How could a thing like this happen? I mean, whose fault is this?”

Petra read the headlines. On the front of the Chicago Tribune, in giant letters, were the words “VERMER VANISHES: IRREPLACABLE TREASURE DISAPPEARS BETWEEN WASHINGTON AND CHICAGO.” Petra sat heavily on a kitchen chair and began to read:

A 1665 Vermeer painting entitled A Lady Writing was stolen this past weekend when in transit between the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and The Art Institute of Chicago.

The painting was to be the centerpiece of an exhibit to open next week at the Art Institute. A Lady Writing is, according to curators at the National Gallery, of “absolutely incalculable worth.” One of thirty-five known works by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, it is without doubt one of the most valuable paintings to have been stolen in the twentieth century.

In an emotional telephone interview, N.B. Jones, the curator in charge of arranging the loan, said, “This is every museum’s nightmare. This is an exquisite and fragile painting that needs to be kept in certain atmospheric conditions. It is easily worth millions of dollars, but could never be sold on the black market. It must have been targeted for theft by an individual collector. This is a tragedy of indescribable proportions.”

According to sources at the Art Institute, the painting arrived with armed guards late yesterday afternoon. When it was unpacked with great excitement by a group of conservators and curators, the case was fond to be empty. A printed note was taped to the packing materials. It read: You will come to agree with me.

Every attendant and armed guard who was near the painting from the time it left Washington has been identified and is being held for questioning.

Petra could hardly breathe. She had to find Calder.

Calder listened to his parents read parts of the article aloud. “I knew it, I knew it,” he muttered to himself.

“What’s that, Calder? It’s upsetting, isn’t it?” Calder’s dad peered at him over the paper. As Calder ran down the hall, he heard his father remarking to his mother, “Must have Spelling today.”

Calder was down the steps in one leap and running toward Petra’s house. He arrived just as she stepped out. One look at each other and both knew it wasn’t necessary to break the news.

They sat down on the curb at the end of Petra’s walk.

“We knew it, right? We knew ahead of time!” Calder began fiercely tearing up fallen leaves.

“Yeah, but we didn’t really know.” Petra’s voice was strangled-sounding. “Besides, who would’ve paid attention to two kids talking about what sounds like a few coincidences?”

“There’s no question now that there’s something really creepy going on here, and that we’re somehow mixed up in it.” Calder looked at Petra directly for the first time. “I mean, how could we have just stumbled on all this stuff?”

Petra didn’t disagree. “It sounds nutty to say, but I think the Vermeer woman is depending on us — kind of like she’s been waiting for us to catch up.”

They were both silent for a moment.

Calder stood up. “So what do we do now?”

“What Charles Fort would do. Pay attention and keep our heads.”


Ms. Hussey turned up at school that morning with her arm in a sling. She explained that the lights had gone out in her house the night before, and that she’d fallen. What had seemed intriguing just a couple of days ago suddenly felt sinister to both Calder and Petra: Petra’s dream painting had been stolen, Petra’s dad was acting weird, Calder was worried about Tommy, and now Ms. Hussey was hurt. Petra and Calder looked at each other, silently running through all the things that were going wrong. Who or what would be next?

Ms. Hussey had the newspaper under her arm, and the first thing she did was read aloud the article about the Vermeer paining. This started a discussion about art theft, and about how thieves sometimes cut canvases out of frames. Ms. Hussey told them about a theft in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Thieves had dressed as police and had gotten the night security guards to let them in. Then they tied up the guards, turned off the alarms, and stole at least ten paintings, including a Vermeer and a Rembrandt. Those paintings were still missing. She told them a number of other stories about art thefts, some of the plottings ingenious and some a mess.

“We just have to hope,” Ms. Hussey said, “that this thief is not a professional.”

“You mean that he’ll do something stupid?” Calder asked. “Something that will give him away?”

“Or that he or she will crack under the strain of it all,” she said, her voice sounding tired. “I’m giving you free work time this morning — I don’t feel very well.”

Most of the class whispered happily or read, seeming to forget about the Vermeer. All day, a book with a full-page reproduction of the Lady was propped open against the blackboard. Calder walked by it and was surprised to realize that it was the same book they’d seen Ms. Hussey pay for at Powell’s a couple of weeks earlier. The word Calder had seen on the cover hadn’t been “Never” — it was part of “Netherland.” Netherlandish Painting.

When he told Petra, she got very quiet. “Another coincidence,” she said, her voice barely audible. “I didn’t like the way Ms. Hussey said that thing about cracking under the strain — she looks like she’s cracking.”

“Think we should tell her we’ve been studying Vermeer too? It might cheer her up,” Calder suggested.

Petra thought for a moment. “No,” she said slowly, “and I’m not sure why. I think she’s in some kind of trouble, and I don’t want her to think we’ve noticed. Otherwise, we won’t be able to help.” Petra looked at Calder.

“Right. She wouldn’t want us to get hurt, too,” Calder finished. Suddenly he remembered the pentomino Denise had kicked under Ms. Hussey’s desk. It had been T — T for trouble.


Walking home that day, Calder and Petra saw Ms. Hussey cross Harper Avenue and head toward Powell’s. They knew exactly what to do.

Hurrying to the corner, they looked both ways. There was no one in sight; she must have gone inside.

“Maybe we can see something through the front window — Mr. Watch is usually facing the other way. If we walk in the door, she might be right there,” Calder said.

Petra nodded.

They crept under the window and stood up just enough to peek over the display shelves. Ms. Hussey and Mr. Watch were talking intently, their heads close together.

It was frustrating, being so close to them and not being able to hear. Petra’s and Calder’s minds were racing, but in different directions. Calder was going over everything he’d seen Mr. Watch ever do that was puzzling — why did he spend so much time in the art section of the store? It seemed like he was always straightening books over there. Why had be been so friendly to Mrs. Sharpe, walking her to the store before Calder started her deliveries? And were he and Ms. Hussey friends?

Petra was wondering what had made Ms. Hussey buy that art book weeks ago, and whether it was just a coincidence. Ms. Hussey was very adventuresome. Had she gotten herself in over her head somehow? Had she really fallen the night before? Did her injuries have anything to do with A Lady Writing?

Heading back down their block, Petra and Calder shared their worries. If they had turned around, they would have seen Ms. Hussey and Mr. Watch leave the store together.

Ms. Hussey was carrying a thick package under her good arm.


The Chicago Tribune editorial board printed this unsigned letter the following morning:

Dear Concerned Art Lovers,

I am the one responsible for the temporary disappearance of A Lady Writing. She remains in her frame, and no harm will come to her. She will be returned when the lies that surround the lifework of Johannes Vermeer have been corrected. I have committed a crime, but in my heart I know that my theft is a gift. Sometimes bold steps must be taken to uncover the truth.

Here lies the problem: The great master known as Johannes Vermeer painted, in truth, only twenty-six of the thirty-five paintings we now attribute to him. These “real” Vermeers were done between 1656 and 1669. How do I know this? Look for yourselves. His touch is unmistakable, his vision and originality impossible to truly reproduce.

Now tell me why we have no papers, no printed materials written by this great artist about his lifework? Why do we know so little about the man?

I believe that this is the answer: Vermeer’s followers and perhaps even members of his family, those he taught and those who so greatly admired him, got hold of and destroyed his papers after his death. Then, a number of works done under his direction or influence were sold as paintings either executed by an immature Vermeer at the start of his career or by the bailing artist in his last years. Centuries went by, and Vermeer fell into obscurity.

As the master’s works became more and more valuable in the twentieth century, those who owned these “earlier” and “later” paintings were, of course, uninterested in the idea that they might be in ownership of a painting done by someone else. These paintings are currently in a number of big and powerful museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The National Gallery in London. Who is now brave enough to correct these errors? Who but the public at large, those with nothing to lose?

What should you do? First you must simply go and look. Look at the reproductions in books about Vermeer if you cannot get to the museums. Ask yourself, after studying the great paintings of genius done by Vermeer during the 1660s and just before, whether these other works have the same magic, the same luminous glow, the same secretive, dreamlike power. Well, do they?

The greatest art belongs to the world. Do not be intimidated by the experts. Trust your instincts. Do not be afraid to go against what you were taught, or what you were told to see or believe. Every person, every set of eyes, has the right to the truth. These paintings will speak to you as they have to me.

When you have looked as you have never looked before, you will come to agree with me. And then the record must be set straight.

To do this, you must protest. You must be difficult and impossible to ignore. I hope you will write, by the thousands, to museum officials, to newspapers, to those in power. When the surviving lifework of this great painter has been correctly identified, I will return A Lady Writing.

I eagerly wait your involvement. I will be setting up a Web site where you may post letters on a computerized message board. They will be kept by me, and they will be read by the world.

As for the three people who received a letter from me in October, you know who you are. I cannot thank you enough. The part you have played has been invaluable.

I congratulate you all on your pursuit of the truth.

The uproar was instantaneous and dramatic.

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