Simon Morrell slipped a razor through the canvas and peeled the image from the frame. It was stiff and crumbled whenever the blade stalled in the century-old material. He did this again and again until five masterpieces lined a cardboard tube, two by Renoir, a Degas sketch showing lithe dancers beside a stage, a Van Gogh self-portrait, and a shadowed forest by Paul Gauguin.
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 clipboard 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 blade to the floor boards, and signaled Henri, his driver, to go.
It was a moment too late. A car swerved, blocking the road, lights flashing, and before Morrell could blink the painfully bright lights from his retinas, hands pulled him and Henri to the sidewalk.
“Monsieur,” he smiled, twisting his head to look at the officer. It was not the Paris police, but the Gendarmerie. The Gendarmerie, French military acting with police authority, was unusual for a simple museum burglary. “What is this?” asked Morrell.
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?” asked the officer. He was tall, which forced Morrell to tilt his head straight up to look him in the eye.
Morrell kept smiling. “I’m waiting for a friend who is late. Why all this?” He motioned to the cuffs and lights while easing his body away from the car and toward the officer. The officer backed away unconsciously.
A third car pulled in behind them, coming to a stop just short of jumping the curb. By the reaction of the Gendarme, Morrell surmised he was another officer. The man’s clothes were old, wrinkled, and looked as though they were pulled from the floor of a brothel. His shadow slithered under the glare of flashing lights as he searched the Peugeot.
“There’s nothing here.” He slammed the car door and pointed the torch at Morrell’s face. “Simon Morrell,” he said.
Morrell relaxed as he recognized the voice, the dark gray eyes, and the wrinkled suit. He’d be out by morning, he thought.
The new officer nodded to the others and Morrell was helped into one of the cars, Henri into another. The officer climbed in with Morrell and pulled onto the road, heading toward police headquarters.
“Jarvinen sent you?” asked Morrell.
The man stayed silent as he lit a cigarette from the car lighter and sucked in a long drag. “Naturally,” he said through a cloud of smoke. “It wouldn’t do to have you questioned by competent authorities, so I’m here to make sure you slip through the system, again. Jarvinen is anxious for the deal to go through and needs the paintings to hold up his end of the trade. Did you get what he wanted?”
“It’ll be finished soon enough. When I have the money, Jarvinen gets the paintings. What is it he wants this time?” asked Morrell. “I know the paintings aren’t for his house.” He laughed at his own joke. Jarvinen lived in the tunnels below Paris, like a rat running from the sunlight.
“Something more valuable than the old paintings, guns or drugs… he wants leverage.”
Morrell mused on that a moment, and started to ask what type of leverage he meant, but stopped. In the years he’d spent working for Jarvinen, it was best not to know the man’s next move or his motives. Those who asked too much usually didn’t stick around long enough to get an answer.
Jade Weekes tapped the speed dial on her phone and waited. “I have the merchandise if you’re interested.” 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, an old friend, stood in the doorway watching. She waved at him, and then turned back to the conversation, the deep voice coming through the phone 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, while out of habit, scanning the faces passing by on the sidewalk. She moved her scrutiny to 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—not quite a man, she corrected. Smooth skin, barely mature enough for a razor, and the confident smile of youth played an invitation all too familiar. She considered not answering but decided to play.
“Yes, and you?” They all assumed Americans were rich and easy.
Her cell phone rang, saving her from further jousting. She recognized the number, Chicago. “Robert?”
“Can you talk?” he asked.
“More or less,” she answered.
“I have an assignment. 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,” he said roughly through the phone.
“Is that wise?”
“In this case, yes. Are you in?”
She sensed his annoyance. “Where and what is it you need?” Jade’s profession in art acquisition dipped her in murky waters at times. Her skills kept her bobbing ahead of the authorities, who considered her a thief. She considered herself a businesswoman.
“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 leading her to presume 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 K.” A half mil, that would be worth a plane ride, but she was pissed he’d call her in front of a buyer with a tapped phone.
“I’ll think about it and get back to you. Can you send me a photo? Oh, and Robert?”
“What?” he asked.
“Next time, call me on a clean phone or else I’ll make sure whoever is wiretapping you knows exactly where you are and where to find your—”
“You want my help or not?”
Robert backed off and ended the call abruptly, with the price of her help going up another ten thousand dollars. Jade sipped her wine, watching the sky darken to a rose and steel blue twilight. She turned and was relieved to find the young man behind her had left.
The last deal she’d helped Robert White pull off had nearly ended her life and blown her reputation. It took over a year to repair the damage and reestablish her contacts. She would make him pay in bits until she was satisfied the balance of power was restored in her favor. A half million dollars would be a start. She might even consider purchasing art through legitimate means, although it wouldn’t be much fun.
She laid cash on the table and headed toward the river. There was a man she liked to talk with on occasion. He’d be there with his Rottweiler and a bag of stale bread, which he would throw into the water for the fish to snatch up.
She pictured the bench in the evening shadows of Notre Dame and the barges lined up along the quay. He lived on the water 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 a story, the one he’d started telling her about a thief and the Musee de Moderne.