January has a way of making everything new. A crisp calendar, a brand new notebook, and a post holiday purge of leftover candy paves the way for fresh creative endeavors.
To kick off the new year, here’s an excerpt from Enigma, the next installment in the Jade Weekes Art Mystery series.
Enigma, A Jade Weekes Art Mystery
The boat rocked in long swells which Jade felt roll from left to right, like a book she’d read enough times to memorize. It felt like Andre’s barge floating on the oily wash of the Seine, but it wasn’t. The damn sun was too hot for one, and the calming cacophony of the Paris waterfront was an ocean away.
“How much time are you planning to waste in that chair?”
She turned her eyes in the direction of the voice, John Young stood at the rail, hands on hips. “I don’t have a job,” she said, closing her eyes again.
He crossed the narrow wood deck and stood over her a moment before pulling a lounge chair closer and sitting. “It’s been over a year,” he said. “The statute of limitations is up on self-pity.” The chair squeaked under his weight as he settled back.
“Who let you on the dock?” she asked, “I’ll need to reprimand security.”
“Andre called and…”
“And wanted you to check on me,” she finished. “I’m happy, tell him that. Now go away.”
“Your father is dead, you can’t bring him back. Andre is alive, thanks to you.”
Jade sat up. Her skin felt tight, like leather tanned and stretched to dry. She had intentionally moved as far away as she could from the memories, and half remembered images of her past, spending months building up walls. An interruption was unneeded, unwanted. Her pulse thumped in her throat. “Whatever you want, I’m not interested.”
Her only comfort zone was now out of her reach. For five years she had walked into galleries, skirted security systems and guards, and walked out with Reniors. It had felt like a normal life to her, normal enough to black out all memories hidden from her by retrograde amnesia, a side effect of being attacked and left for dead, floating in the Seine. Certainly, if you have something to live for, it doesn’t get washed so easily from your mind, she thought. The temporal vacancy was home.
The only image she had of her life before the attack, was of her father laying on the floor, his blood painting the gray tiles of their small Chicago gallery. Even as she’d tried to not remember, it came back when the same madman, Jarvinen, had tried to kill Andre, the mentor who had taught her a use for her unusual skill set. He was like her second father—for a while at least.
Young shifted beside her. She glanced to her right. His legs stretched to the end of the lounge chair, and he had pulled a Braves baseball cap over his eyes.
“Suit yourself,” she said.
“I will,” he replied.
Jade closed her eyes, trying to block out his presence. Water lapped at the dock pilings, and further down, she heard a boat crew yelling to one another as they off loaded a fishing party. Young made no sound, and after a while she began to think he’d either left, or perhaps fallen asleep. She glanced at the chair. He was still there. Lean and tan, clad in tan cargo shorts and a Jimmy Buffett t-shirt, he fit into the surroundings. It was a marked improvement over the mud and blood crusted jacket and jeans he’d worn when they had exited the sewers of Paris. He reminded her of unfinished business.
“What have you heard of Morrell?” she asked. Simon Morrell, a career art thief, con man, and murderer with no moral compass, lived adrift in the money currents offered by organized crime. Last year, when his plans countered Jade’s, she’d helped the police capture him with solid evidence to put him away for life.
Unfortunately, he had quickly disappeared—as was his habit—during a custody exchange.
“There’s an occasional lead, but nothing turns up,” said Young. “I think someone in the ranks is helping him, but so far I don’t know who.”
“Is he in Europe or the States?”
Young smiled. “Both, but I’m always a step behind,” he said.
“With Morrell, you can’t follow leads, you have to figure out what he wants, and get to it first,” said Jade.
“Is that so?”
She stood up and wrapped a large dark towel around her waist. The contrast of the terry fabric against her tanned skin, drew Young’s eyes upward until they met hers, and he looked away, pulling his hat back in place.
“Why are you here, John?”
“Andre, forever in need of something to occupy his time, discovered a trail that may lead to a lost painting. You know how he can’t resist a challenge,” drifted Young’s voice from under his hat brim. He seemed to sink deeper into the chair. “He thinks you can find it.”
Jade walked to boat cabin and pulled a cooler from under a bench. After sloshing through watered down ice, she returned with two dripping glass bottles, and held one over Young’s head. “Here,” she said.
He took the beer from her hand, and twisted off the cap. “Thanks.”
“Per my agreement with the French, British, and United States legal systems, I don’t find paintings anymore, but thanks for thinking of me.” She took a sip of her beer and sat. “Is Morrell involved?”
Young shook his head. “Not this one, it’s an old case, and a lot of years and people have done their damnedest to erase the trail. Just thought you might be bored hiding out, waiting for the rest of your life to happen. You can use your unique talents for something better.”
“What’s the catch?”
“It’s just a story, a few old letters,” he said. “And this.” He reached into his back pocket, then held an envelope out. “Take it.”
She paused, looking at it, recognizing the stationery from Andre’s desk. She could almost see the barge rocking on the currents of the river, beneath the shadows of Notre Dame. She took her time reaching for, it and pulled the envelope his from his fingers. The flap was partially glued from the humid air, and she slipped her finger under the edge to flip it open. A small black and white photograph with scalloped white edges, and the brown spots that come to old paper with age, slid into her fingers. A girl stared back at her, dark hair pulled back into a bun of some kind, with wild curls, breaking loose, suspended around her face. She wore a jacket and white blouse, and stood in the formal posture people took decades ago when posing for a picture.
“Who is she?” asked Jade.
“Keep looking,” Young replied.
The photo revealed little detail. The setting appeared to be in a home, a lace curtain peeked along the edge of the image, and a painting hung in the background. The girl seemed familiar, but Jade couldn’t pick any feature to connect a name or memory. “I’m sure I’ve never seen her, but there’s something about her… where and when was this taken?” she asked, flipping it over to scan the back.
“Dessau, Germany, 1938.”
Jade looked over at Young. “Name?”
“Look again,” he replied with a nod towards the photo. “I’m sure your father told you stories about her.” He paused to take a hit off his beer. “There was a reason he became an art collector and opened the gallery. If you haven’t remembered yet, I would think you’d want to look up your family.”
She let out a breath, “Family?” She slipped the photo into the envelope and tossed it onto his chest. “I don’t know the person I used to be, why would I waste time on a family tree?”
Young sat up, placing his bottle on the deck under the chair. He slid the photo from the envelope, and held it next to her face. “It’s the eyes and mouth that you find familiar,” he said, staring at her past its curved edge, his gaze challenging.
She looked at him, then at the deck over his shoulder, and then down at her beer bottle without answering.
“Why do you think that is?” he asked.
“You can hardly wait to tell me. I don’t know whether to be interested or annoyed.”
“You’re interested,” he replied in a softer tone. “You recognized her because her face looks a lot like yours.” He flipped the photo around so the image gazed at her.
Jade looked at the girl. She reached up and covered part of the image so only the eyes looked back. “Family photo?” she whispered.
“Your grandmother, Anna Blume.”
In the distance, a jet ski chopped over water sending its wake crashing. Suddenly, every sound seemed magnified, the shouts from the deck hands, and whistle calls from the seagulls competed for her attention. What had stumped her before, now was obvious. “Anna Blume.” She said the name, wondering if she’d said at another time in her life, perhaps before her memories were scrambled. The sound of the letters felt foreign.
“Anna left Germany shortly after this picture was taken. She was with her father, Jacob Werner, but somewhere along the way, they were separated.”
“My father was named after him,” she said. “Why is this important now? I’m sure she’s long dead.”
“She had a painting with her. She and her father, were running from the Nazi occupation when the train they were on was detained. Werner was taken away by German soldiers, but Anna hid with a group of women. She left the country, at least that’s what we believe. The history gets sketchy after that.”
“Wait a minute,” said Jade. “If you don’t know what happened to her, then how do you know she’s my grandmother? This sounds like some bullshit that you and Andre cooked up.”
“Why would we cook anything up? If you want to stay on this boat the rest of your life, I don’t care, but…” he paused with dramatic effect. “If we find out what happened to her, we find this.” He tapped the corner of the photo.
She looked at the eyes and face of Anna Blume, and then turned her attention to the painting hanging on the wall behind her shoulder. “I need a closer look,” she said.
Jade left him on the deck while she rummaged through the cabin. When she returned, she had a small domed magnifier. She laid the photo on the arm of the chair and covered it with the glass. The painting curved upward, exaggerating the lines of the geometric patterns that crossed over the face…no, she thought, it was two faces staring at her. “Paul Klee.”
“That’s what we’re looking for,” he said.
“He was one of the artists deemed degenerate by Hitler.” She moved the dome along the image to take in more detail. “He was too modern and bold with his vision to fit into the Führer’s art horde.”
“You know a lot about art from that period?” he asked.
“You never answered my question. How do you know this woman is my grandmother?”
Young paused, collecting his thoughts before answering. “You really don’t remember any of this?” He turned the photo to get a better view through the magnifier. “After Anna fled Germany, we traced her to France.”
“We? How are you in this?”
“I have an extensive file on you and your father. Naturally, when I found a mystery in his past, I couldn’t resist looking closer. It fit Andre’s story,” he said, rubbing his hands together to remove the water that had dripped from his beer bottle. “I shared it with Andre because he knows the shadier sides of the European art market better than anyone. If this painting had been seen in the last seventy-five years, he would know.”
“You said there were letters.”
Young pulled a pack of papers from his shorts pocket and unfolded them before handing them over. “These are photocopies of letters Anna wrote to her husband before she disappeared. She left Germany, ending up in France where she married, and had your dad. The painting she smuggled out of Germany is worth around sixty-million euros. The story says she left her family to take the painting to a museum on the German border to sell. They were struggling for food and basics everywhere in France at the time. She never came back. The painting didn’t surface, and when her husband looked for her, he found out she had never arrived.”
“So she never surfaced,” said Jade, “and neither did the painting.” She pulled the papers apart, looking at the delicate script handwriting.
“The last page is our clue. It’s the last communication she had with her family. The painting was the only thing of value she had when they left Germany.”
“So, if I find the Klee, its mine, right?”
“That’s not so clear,” he said, “and you know it. This photo is the only proof of ownership.”
“And the stories and letters?”
“Only a bill of sale will stand up in court, especially on a case this old.” He shrugged. “Even if we find it, it may take years to clear ownership.”
“I see what you’re doing.” She shoved the papers and photo into the envelope and handed it over. “Believe me, I appreciate your concern, but I don’t need a diversion. I’m happy to hang on my boat and stay out of jail. You’re the last person who should be getting me involved on an art hunt.”
“You’re the last person who should be wasting their intelligence bobbing on this waterway.” He downed the last of his beer and pitched the bottle into a bucket beside the deck rail with a harsh clatter just short of shattering.
“What if I could guarantee you’re on the right side of the law. You won’t be arrested,” he added.
“I recall that line,” she replied, “just before my court appearance.”
“You never had jail time. I made the case that you helped take down Jarvinen’s gang which solved a murder case and a string of heists.” He paused and looked toward the cooler. “You have another beer in there?”
He pulled the cooler open and grabbed two more bottles. “This is your mystery to solve. It’s your prize to win.”
“I keep the Klee?”
“You connect the dots for your past.” He passed the beer to her. “You’re hiding, trying to keep yourself from remembering who you were before you lost your memory. I’m suggesting you face it head on.” He pointed his beer toward her. “You’re not Jane Werner, or Jade Weekes.” He tapped his bottle against hers, “You need to figure out who you’re going to be today.”
She popped the cap off the beer and let it bounce under the chair. “If I help you, I want the painting.”
“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Are you in?”
“What’s in it for you and Andre?”
Young smiled, “This is strictly for fun.”
“Doesn’t it go against your job with the FBI?” she asked.
“The job is gone. I spent too many years living with the worst kind of people and seeing them walk on a technicality. It was time to retire.”
He stretched out on the chair, and Jade realized how much he had changed, aside from the clothing. The lines that had cut into his brow were softer, and he was relaxed. There was little sign of the John Young that had guided her through the Paris underground, ready to react to attack, and ready to kill if needed.
“How long have you been out?”
“A few months. It’s a nice pension too. I’m getting used to waking up knowing someone isn’t trying to kill me.”
“I’m flattered you trust me,” she said. “But I’m not interested.”
Young smiled, but the expression didn’t reach all of this face. He let out a long breath, “Andre said you’d say no. Aren’t you at least a little curious to know what happened to Anna and the Klee?”
“I don’t know Anna, or the line of descendants you think leads to me. You and Andre know enough to move on without me.” She stood and walked to the deck rail facing the dock. “I’d like you to leave.”
Young stared at her, seeming to weigh if her request was genuine, and then walked to the rail. He adjusted his cap to shade his eyes, and stepped onto the dock. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
She watched him walk the weather washed boards until he disappeared into the parking lot. The whole idea that she’d jump at the chance to find a painting, or even search through her family history to satisfy Andre’s whims infuriated her. John was ex FBI, and with the deep undercover stretch he did with Andre, his art world connections were shadier than Morrell’s.
A shadow of guilt tinged her anger. She wouldn’t have found Andre in the labyrinth of catacombs beneath Paris without John’s connections. His cover had been deep enough to burn his relationship with most of his FBI colleagues, who believed he’d turned to the other side of the game. Was he really retired, or had he been forced out of the bureau? She could call Stewart Connor with the Boston FBI office and ask, but that would mean she cared if his story were true—that would mean she was actually considering taking up the challenge. Stewart was John’s only friend left at the FBI, and had tracked her and Morrell to Jarvinen. What were the chances even he would know John’s official status, or would it be more closed files, locked out of his security clearance?
“Damn it!” Why can’t I just stay out of it? She turned and noticed the pack of papers and photos on the chair. John was leaving bait, she thought.
She grabbed the pages and marched to the rail with the intention of throwing them over, but her fingers wouldn’t let go. This is all be fiction, she thought. It’s easy to fake letters and photos. She held them over the water again, but her own eyes stared back at her from the grainy image, and again, she hesitated.
Inside the cabin, her cell phone rang. After the fourth ring, it stopped and was followed by a chirp of a text message.
She tossed the papers onto the chair, reached in the door, and grabbed the phone off the counter.
“Why this painting? Why Blume?” the text read. The number was unfamiliar, and Jade was sure it would lead to a pay as you go phone with no account records. She typed and hit send. “Who is this?”.
The reply came quick, “Find me.”
She stared at the text message, her mind reeling over the possibilities. Morrell? Young? Andre? “I’m not playing your game,” she typed. There was no answer, and after a moment she set the phone down.
It was a good questions. Why now? Why this hunt?
She grabbed a backpack and shoved in a change of clothes and a toothbrush. When she emerged at the end of the dock, Young was sitting on the hood of a black SUV, eating a hot dog. He didn’t seem surprised to see her.
Jade cocked her head, resisting the comment she wanted to make. Instead, she said, “If I help you, I want the painting, and I call the plays. I’ve spent years building connections to information, and to people who know how to make transactions happen. I’m not going to risk that.”
“I thought you were out of the business.”
“Some skills translate to other career paths.” She opened the car door and tossed her pack into the floorboards.
“That’s all you need to know.”
“First steps?” he asked, throwing the food wrapper into a trash can. He opened the driver’s door and slid in.
“We go to Chicago.”
“To your father’s old apartment?” he asked.
She nodded, “Jacob had a storeroom full of boxes with family papers, photos…things passed down. It’s the logical place to start piecing together the story.”
“Will you be calling on old friends?” he asked.
“Alex Ford, you mean?” Alex, an action-figure of a movie star, had helped to track her father’s killer to Paris, and had risked his own life to save hers. All that, after she had broken into his house with the intention of plundering his art collection. “He’s in London working on a project. He’ll be gone another month, at least.”
“So you’re still an item.”
She shook her head, “We were never an item. We just play chess sometimes.”
“Is that an euphemism?”
She gave a shrug, “I think your job for now is to drive.”
Paul Klee was a German-Swiss painter and draftsman who’s artistic influence survives in modern graphic design and typography. His exploration of styles and mediums defied classification, taking in elements of Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstraction. This was enough for Hitler and his Reich Marshals to deem his work subversive. Klee’s paintings were part of the degenerate art exhibition, Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst” in Munich, November 1937.