I’m getting close to the final edits on WIRED and just can’t resist sharing a few chapters. You met Stewart Connor on Sample Sunday, now meet Simon Morrell and Jade Weekes: both are smart and resourceful, however, only one will survive an FBI sting and a crime syndicate turf war.
Simon Morrell slipped a razor blade through the paper and peeled the image from the frame. He did this again and again until six master pieces lined a cardboard tube.
Less than two minutes later, he dropped the tube into a crate, latched it shut, and affixed a shipping label to the outside. He added a forged manifest to the clip board for the morning outgoing stock and opened the door. Alarms rang instantly.
He ran the half block to a Peugeot idling in the dark, dropped the knife to the floor boards and signaled his driver to move a moment too late. A car swerved, blocking the road, lights flashed and too quickly to be luck. Hands pulled him and Henri to the sidewalk.
“Monsieur,” he smiled, twisting his head to look at the office. It was not the Paris police, but the Gendarme. “What is this?”
They patted him down and hauled him to his feet. Henri was face down on the Peugeot’s hood with his hands cuffed.
“Do you want to explain what you were doing at the Musee de Moderne?”
Morrell continued to smile, “I’m sitting and waiting for a friend that is late. Why all this?” he motions to the cuffs and lights.
He was interrupted by a third Gendarme that pulled in behind them. This one was dressed in street clothes and had a day of stubble on his face. He searched Morrell’s car.
“Nothing’s here.” He slammed the car door and pointed a flashlight in Morrell’s face. “Simon Morrell,” he said.
Morrell recognized the voice and dark gray eyes and the wrinkled suit. He’d be out by morning, he thought.
The third officer nodded to the others and Morrell was helped into one of the cars, Henri into another. The officer climbed in with him and pulled the car into the road and toward police headquarters.
“Jarvinen sent you?” asked Morrell.
“Of course, someone had to haul your ass out. Is it done?”
“It will be finished soon enough. When I have the money, Jarvinen gets the paintings.”
Jade Weekes tapped the speed dial on her phone and waited. “I have the item you want.” She half listened as a waiter planted a glass of pinot on the table along with a basket of hard bread. She smiled, the cafe owner stood in the doorway watching. She turned back to the conversation, the deep voice almost garbled on the mobile signal.
“When? I’ll meet you Wednesday. Noon at the Maison du Livre on Rue Saint-Honore.” Her French was good, but flat with an American intonation. She ended the conversation, scanning the faces passing by on the sidewalk, then the couple sitting at the far end of the patio. It was early for dinner, especially in the Paris tourist district. A few people lingered by the menu posted outside the cafe.
“American?” asked a voice from the table behind her. Jade turned and met the stare of a young man– barely a man, she corrected and smiled. She considered not answering, but decided to play.
“Yes, and you?” The side-ways game of dodging amorous Frenchman amused her, and he was rather cute. They all assumed Americans were rich and easy.
Her cell phone rang, saving her from further joisting, the number she recognized, Chicago. “Yes, Robert?”
“Can you talk?” he asked.
“More or less, can you?”
“I have an assignment.” She could sense his annoyance. “Are you interested?” Behind Robert’s voice, gunshots popped in succession.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m with a buyer at a shooting range.”
“Is that wise?”
“In this case, yes. Are you in?” he asked.
“Where and what is it that you need?”
“It’s in the home of a collector in St. Pete. It’s been out of circulation for a while. How soon can you get there?” Out of circulation, that meant stolen or smuggled, Robert rarely cared which. His word choice lead her to surmise his phone was bugged as usual.
“How much is your client willing to pay to obtain this collector’s piece?” She took a sip of her wine and folded open the menu, pretending to read.
“Five hundred.” A half mill, that would be worth a plane ride but she was pissed he’d call her in front of a buyer and when his phone could possibly be tapped.
“I’ll think about it and get back to you. Can you send me a photo of what he wants?”
Robert agreed, ending the call abruptly. The young man behind her had left and the sky was darkening to a rose and steel blue twilight.
The last deal she’d helped Robert White pull off had nearly ended her life and blown her reputation. It took two years to repair the damage and reestablish her contacts. Half a million dollars. That would let her take time off and perhaps build her collection. Maybe I’ll open up an art house, she thought, then smiled. She’d have to actually buy the works and prove their provenance.
She laid cash on the table and headed toward the river. There was a man there she liked to talk with on occasion. He’d be there with his Rottweiler and bag of stale bread which he would throw into the water to watch the fish snatch up.
She pictured the bench in the evening shadows of Notre Dame and the barges lined up along the quay. He lived there part of the year; the rest of the time, Jade had no idea where he went. She needed him to fill in a few missing pieces to her story, the one he’d started telling her about a thief and the Musee de Moderne.
Morrell scratched a hand over his head and stretched his jaw trying to get his face to relax. His muscles twitched and a cramp prevented him from turning his head to the right. Jarvinen waited.
He’d chosen to meet in the metro under Charles de Gaulle. Jarvinen blended in with the crowd and only the familiar faces of several men around him signaled the security he commanded. Morrell approached and Jarvinen offered a cigarette.
Morrell nodded and lit the fag before speaking. “The delivery came through as scheduled. It’s all there, Van Gogh, Degas and Chagall.
“Clever, Simon. The Musee mailed us their own art and then sent the police all over France looking for them. I admire innovative thinking.”
“Thank you.” Morrell nodded, proud of the simplicity of his plan. The Musee staff, unaware of the crate’s contents, shipped their own stolen works to an associate who’d arranged to have it moved to a warehouse in London. It was on its way to Saudi Arabia and into a private collection and a large sum was headed to Morrell’s bank account.
Commuters shoved their way past them and the ring of body guards closed in. Something hid behind Jarvinen’s expression: tension. He seemed to be focused on his thoughts and stared at Morrell intently.
“One more, Simon,” he said.
Morrell’s skin prickled, clammy sweat chilled his skin. “A last job?” he asked with a forced smile. “I plan to retire.”
Jarvinen ignored him, “St. Pete.” He laid a newspaper against Morrell’s chest. “Read this and get back to me with your ideas. Three days, Simon,” he warned.
An armed police team walked by, scanning the crowd. Jarvinen and his guards faded into the foot traffic along the platform, blending. It was a refined survivor tactic for Jarvinen.
Morrell looked at the paper he’d been handed. It was the St. Pete Times, folded to the business section with a photo of a young man and a middle aged woman staring back at him. Alex Ford, the caption read, generously donated six priceless Van Gogh’s to the Red Door Foundation for Fine Art. Behind the couple, leaning against a gold painted easel, was the unmistakable image of what Jarvinen really wanted.
He tucked the paper under his arm and headed up the escalator.
The Wind Beaten Tree went gone underground in 1972, so this was must be one of the study pieces.
He scanned the photo again and began drawing lines from Ford to Van Gogh to Jarvinen. The next course of action was clearly illustrated. It would take more than three days.
Jade bobbed and weaved through a crowd of students following a red-jacketed guide. She caught snatches of his speech which caused her to glance up at the old church. The stone-work was medieval, but the glass newer, installed shortly after WWII when smashed by invading soldiers. The American students seemed to only half listen, pre-occupied snapping pictures or talking. How could they appreciate art that had taken a hundred years to build, one day to nearly destroy and a half century to repair? Paris carried the marks of history like battle scars, its museums holding artifacts that had been hidden from Nazi forces and repatriated in the years since. She knew these museums well.
She cut through an alley between a hotel and a row of shops and came to the quay. It was quieter here. Andre sat on his bench with Gustavo, his pure bred Rottweiler, resting in the straggled grass.
“Bonjour, Andre,” she said, sitting. He didn’t turn. His attention settled on the far bank where a group of workers worked, repairing a bridge abutment.
“I’m surprised to see you today,” he said in English, his accent light and refined. “I thought you would have moved on by now.”
“I have a job waiting, but first I wanted to see if you know of a man named Morrell.”
“I hear his name around.” She watched his expression for a reaction.
“You don’t want to know him. He has terrible luck and even worse breath.”
“Seriously, Andre, I’m heading to the states for awhile, can you keep an eye on him and let me know if he does… well, anything interesting?”
“The Musee de Moderne was burgled last night. The thief, or thieves, took six items, all of outstanding quality.”
Jade studied his profile trying to discern his intent. “I was occupied last night and nowhere near the Musee, or are suggesting it was Morrell,” she asked. “I have a delivery to make and then I’ll be out of France at least until the end of the month.”
“Are you working with Morrell?” Andre asked in turn.
“No, but I got a tip that he vouched for a buyer in London. I want to know how good his relations are with the group.” The group referred to a small network of crooks, con men and wise guys that specialized in cultural artifacts ferreted to the black market. She’d crossed paths with them before and worked very hard to stay out of their way.
“Morrell has been around awhile, don’t trust him to be honest, but you can trust him to be an excellent crook. I wouldn’t make any deals with him.” Andre reached into his jacket and produced a small yellow envelope and handed it to her. “Happy birthday.”
She took the envelope, but didn’t open it. “What’s this?”
“Information.” Finally he turned to look at her, his tone moving from playful to serious. “There are rumblings and sometimes I hear your name mentioned,” he paused, “there’s a mole in the Gendarme. He may or may not be helpful.”
“Why are you telling me this? Do you know something about the Musee job last night? You weren’t asking because you thought I did the job.”
Andre didn’t speak. She opened the envelope and removed a newspaper clipping. The story was about an American student that had disappeared in 1997. “Is this me?” she asked.
He shrugged. “It’s your memory that plays tricks. I try to fill in the landscape.”
“Before I leave,” she started, not know how to say it right. “I want you to know that I am grateful.”
“For giving you a job or for fishing you out of the river?” he asked.
Jade folded the paper and put it back in the envelope. “Both, but mostly for fishing me out of the river. I’m too good at stealing to have ever been anything else.”
“Steal? No, you are redistributing resources.”
“I know what I am, I just don’t know who I am.” Her near drowning in the river was where her life began.
Andre chuckled. “That is an old question for all of us.”
“It gives me all the comfort I need. Don’t you think a life worth returning to would also be worth remembering?”
On impulse, she leaned over and kissed his rough cheek. He smelled of musk and oak, the smells of his house boat that bobbed in the water nearby. “I have to go.”
“I know,” he said.
Jade walked away from the smell of brackish water and diesel fuel from a tug churning along the waterway. The scent never failed to dip her mind to the night Andre had pulled her from the oily river wash. The chaotic flashes of that evening remained more clear to her memory than the previous twenty-some years that had become a blank check. She owed Andre her life, and sometimes, she thought, perhaps more.