Laurel Beacham is back on the trail of missing masterpieces and art thieves in the sequel to Counterfeit Conspiracies. Teaming up with Jack Hawkes, a man who keeps her trust meter firmly in the red zone, they leap headlong into a plot growing more dangerous and elusive.
Series: Bodies of Art Mysteries
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Two black and whites screamed to the curb, paralleling each other and blocking off any possibility of retreat. Brakes screeched. Sirens blared. My blood pressure ratcheted up a notch. The flashing lights alone set my heart pounding so hard I could swear the beats showed through my black Lycra.
One step and I bled back into the shadows of the house’s side wall.
A simple pickup on a limited time frame. That’s what the job had been. My objective was a medium-sized nude, which had reclined over the headboard of a blackmailer’s bed for decades. A painting and headboard currently residing inside the townhouse that was the focal point of this Orlando PD team.
“He’s been extorting money from my mother since before I was born,” Kat Gleeson had explained earlier in the afternoon. “The blackmailer picked up the portrait at a sale after the artist died, playing a hunch it would be worth bigger bucks later. Mother received the first demand as soon as my father started in political life. Laurel, you have to help us.”
A longtime friend from my Cornell years, and daughter to Senator Gleeson, R-FL, Kat called me earlier in the day, frantic to meet after hearing I was in the city. When I’d said my Miami flight was first thing in the morning, she’d turned from frantic to panicked, and I’d promised to be at her favorite cocktail bar in ten minutes time.
Now, twelve hours later, this new dilemma forced me to contemplate an alternate route inside the house for the nude painted when Kat’s mother was an ingénue and the artist undiscovered. In his later years, before his final drug overdose, the once up-and-coming artist became best known for his erotic subjects and a penchant for the rock-and-roll lifestyle of the 1970s. A single moment captured in brushstrokes kept Kat’s mother chronically worried and perpetually broke all these years later.
As political buzz hummed about Senator Gleeson’s prospective run for the presidency, the hush-money stakes had risen sharply. The next installment hit a price Mrs. Gleeson couldn’t deliver without her husband’s knowledge and cooperation.
In the past few years I’d gained the reputation as the best person to call when a legitimate piece of art went missing. I’d climbed the ranks of the Beacham Foundation, from internship at the New York office during college, to field work and troubleshooting the last five-plus years since graduation, rising in the eyes of the art world as my skills sharpened and the wins mounted on my record. However, people who knew me well—or like Kat, had known me in my wilder college days—were also aware of my “special” talents, and that I was always ready to jump into a non-work venue when conventional methods fell short or were too complicated for implementation. I dubbed these pro bono efforts my “reclamation projects.” Given my more visible status since a promotion a few weeks ago to head of the London office of Beacham Ltd., I knew such forays may have to be reduced in the future, but there was no way I could turn my back when someone like Kat appealed to me for help.
My prep time on this reclamation was understandably limited, but the facts that came back were solid— the owner was a Luddite who didn’t know a silent alarm from a silent movie. An absolute anachronism today, but the attribute served him well as a blackmailer since the practice left little risk of his digital fingerprint getting lifted anywhere.
What had alerted the cops?
The head-to-toe unrelieved black I wore dovetailed into the shadows and afforded me a bit of invisibility. I contemplated the peripheral shrubbery but waited to see the officers’ game plan. A peek at my watch, hidden by the hood of my sleeve, showed less than a half hour to either accomplish what I came to do or cut and run.
Car doors slammed, and voices rose as authoritative tones ordered a blue scramble to search for whatever tipped them off to the location.
Another scan of the back wall showed the basement window I’d initially dismissed as too small for a final escape. But it could get me into the house as long as I sucked in my gut and visualized being very, very small. I also had to maneuver without being seen or heard across the white ribbon obligatory to many Sunshine State homes; the oyster-shell path that ringed the grounds around the house walls like fluorescence in the moon glow.
They drew their guns and headed for the porch. I made my move, using long-latent childhood gymnastic muscles to clear the wide, crushed path and stick a quiet landing on the tiny strip of grass along the foundation.
I pulled the penlight stashed in my bra and scoped out the basement in about 2.6 seconds. Any longer carried too much risk, but the quickly lighted view told me I’d be dropping six feet onto bare cement. That was doable.
The extended beam of a Maglite flashed from around the corner as I started feet first down the rabbit hole. When my soles hit concrete, I reached up to softly set the window back into a closed position. Then I crouched into a dark ball and held my breath. Via the locked window, I heard the cop’s feet pass by, then stop. He flashed his light through the glass, across the cellar, floor to ceiling. I hugged the wall tighter and hoped he wouldn’t look straight down.
“Nah,” I heard him say into his radio. “There’s a tiny window back here, but it’s locked, and I can’t imagine anyone getting through it anyway. Over.”
Still, it wasn’t time to sigh in relief. The mark was due home from a NASA event soon. No need to look at my watch again to know the minutes were flying. I continued to hold my breath until I heard the oyster shells crunch when the cop resumed his recon.
A cursory scan for infrared, trip wires, or motion detectors came up zero. The house was as technology-free as I’d been told. No doubt I was taking a chance going in before the cops left, but if I’d stayed outside I was pretty much guaranteed to get caught. And a ride in the back of a squad car to explain why I was dressed in black in a dark yard after midnight was not on my agenda for the evening.
The open floor plan in the living space made it relatively easy to navigate without lights. Moonlight streamed through huge windows dressed in nothing but sheers. I kept to the beige and taupe walls and the larger pieces of furniture as much as possible, using the moving shadows of the cops outside to know where and when to scoot to the next spot. The boys in blue only appeared to be doing reconnaissance, leaving me to hope for a rapid departure when they found the house secured. At least I hoped it was completely secure. I hadn’t had time to do a whole house perimeter before they showed up.
I crept up the stairs. The landing opened to a full-wall window that overlooked the front yard. Staying back as far as possible, I watched the blue crew huddle again at the curb.
Please, please, please leave. I don’t have much time left.
Just as my limbs started to cramp from standing so still, I saw one give the “move ’em out” swing of the arm, and both teams returned to their respective cars. I didn’t start breathing again until I saw the revolving lights stop and the headlights turn back down the boulevard.
The master suite was where I expected, and I was probably feeling too cocky as I closed the door behind me and pulled from my pocket the sharp little tool used to extract canvasses from frames. I spun around and approached the bed—and got my next shock of the night. A gorgeous baroque frame hung on the wall over the headboard…but it was empty.
I froze. There was no backup plan for this. Where else could the portrait be?
A check of the closet and under the bed offered no answers. I started running through rooms, scanning each wall, behind the sofa and chairs. Nada.
In the study I found bookcases filled with volumes and vases, but no portraits. I circled the desk, hoping for a clue. The ultraprecise Omega chronometer on my left wrist gave one quiet beep, warning me to pull up stakes and run before it was too late.
My gaze fell on the partially open middle desk drawer, and about an inch-view of a leather-bound journal. I opened the drawer about a foot. Across the front of the journal, embossed in gold, were the words “My Women.”
His little black book? Or his blackmail roster? Either way, taking it might give me ammunition to offer Mrs. Gleeson if the worst happened and the blackmailer came after her again. He’d obviously stashed the portrait someplace else. Maybe Kat spoke to someone besides me about this, and he’d gotten wind of a rescue attempt?
If I couldn’t bring back the painting, perhaps this book could be used as an alternate method to stop the blackmail.
I needed to fly. The book went down the front of my leotard, and the drawer was returned to its partially-open position. I slipped out the side door I’d originally planned to use for entry to the house.
Vaulting the back wall wasn’t even a challenge. I was so pumped I probably could have vaulted the whole house without too much difficulty.
I was behind the steering wheel of my car and digging the book out of my clothes, trying to figure out what I was going to tell Kat, when a voice behind me said, “Find anything interesting, love?”
If I could have reached him, Jack Hawkes would have been dead.
“Damn it, Jack. Don’t do that.” I turned in my seat and instinctively swung backhanded to try to slap the grin from his face.
He caught my arm without even trying.
“A trifle nervy, aren’t you?”
Jack Hawkes remained a mystery no matter how creatively I tried to corner him on personal details. Maybe some level of UK agent, likely MI-6 by the way he operated, but he treated his background as something on a need-to-know basis. I always had the feeling he didn’t want to explain rather than he couldn’t, and I’d learned early on to not let my guard down around people who didn’t act completely trustworthy. Jack tipped the scale soundly on my distrust meter. He and I were currently teamed up to stop what may be the art heist of the century. Our single crumb of information mentioned a safe-deposit box, which was why we came to Orlando. Our legal team moved heaven and earth for Jack and me to peek inside, but we only found a combination of numbers, a pristine map of the European Union, and a reference to Miami.
When Jack and I parted company earlier, he’d said he had plans for the evening. I had no idea our evening agendas were similar, and hadn’t expected to see Jack’s face until our Miami flight the following morning. The sight of his broad-shouldered frame filling my backseat was unnerving enough to give my voice an edge. “I’m pissed off is what I am.” I waved a hand. “It’s…over. And I failed. What are you doing here?”
“Oh, a little shopping. Senator Gleeson asked me to pick up an old canvas for him.”
“What?” I stared as Jack pulled an item from behind my seat back.
There it was, a gorgeous nude infamous because of the later years reputation of the artist. Kat’s mother was young and lovely, and the body of art should never have gained its now notorious reputation. “It’s beautiful. A true work of genius.” I should have been more upset with him, but I was truly relieved to see the painting safely away from the blackmailer’s grasp.
“It absolutely is. Sorry I scooped it out already and you had to leave empty handed.”
A second scream of sirens erupted from somewhere several blocks away.
“I’m guessing you went out the side door,” Jack said.
“The neighbor to that side apparently has a predilection for night vision goggles and very nicely alerted the police to my exit right before you arrived on the scene.”
“Explains why they didn’t try to get inside. The neighbor saw you leave.”
Jack nodded. “Goes to show we work better together than apart.”
“You said you had plans. You didn’t say you were after the painting, too.”
“And you didn’t mention it at all,” he reminded.
I ignored his dig and reached between the seats to run a gentle finger along the artist’s confident brushstrokes. “How did you know I was going to take this?”
“The senator’s aide was a Rhodes Scholar, and we met when we were at university together.”
“So, the senator already knows?”
“Has for years. He’s been waiting for his wife to bring it up but was afraid of saying anything until she spoke first. Whenever her bank account ran low, he knew she’d had to make another payment, and he would find an excuse to give her more. But he’d recognized the signs lately that things were getting out of hand, and he hired a private detective to learn the man’s schedule. Tonight seemed the best opportunity to make a move, especially since we’re leaving in a few hours.”
I nodded. “That was our thinking too. Kat’s and mine. The Gleesons’ daughter and I were college friends as well.”
I pulled the book from my neckline. “But I didn’t leave empty handed. Found this in his study when trying to discover where the missing portrait was. I think it may be more blackmail victims. We were concerned that taking the portrait would point too much toward Mrs. Gleeson, but couldn’t find any other means to stop the blackmail. I’m hoping this information defrays the risk of him doing something else to bring light to situation.”
“Like having her arrested for the theft of a painting he legally owns?”
“And used for blackmailing purposes.” I replied
“True, but proving it would bring on the media exposure everyone wants to avoid. Like you, I imagine the blackmailer counts on that.” Jack turned on the dome light and snatched the book from my grasp.
“Hey, give it back.”
“No, this is evidence—” He whistled.
Jack held up a hand to silence me, then turned a couple more pages. I tried to retrieve the book, but he jumped across the seat, and my fingernails scratched the cover.
“You’re going to tell me what that is, Hawkes.”
“A minute, please.”
Finally, he stopped shifting pages and looked up, his face a mask of disbelief. “A detailed report on human trafficking activity coming through Florida, then going out across the U.S. He’s documented everything, who his clients are, what they’ve paid, which countries the women came from. Everything. A bit of coding, but easily worked out. This guy really is an ego manic.”
“Wow.” This was nothing like I’d expected when I took the journal. “So, does it go to the FBI or Interpol?”
“Probably both. You drive. I’ll send someone to pick up my car later.” Jack pulled out his cell.
I should have called Kat to give her the high sign, but I needed to process a lot of this first. To figure out how to tell her the blackmailer had more to worry about than the loss of his moneymaking portrait, and do so without giving away state secrets. I also had to find a sensitive way to reveal her father knew about the blackmail but had kept the knowledge secret from her mother.
There could be many reasons why, both sincere and creepy.
Kat and I were scheduled to meet in the airport short-term parking in a few hours. The plan was to hand over the portrait, letting it go practically unnoticed from my car trunk to hers before we split up—me for my southbound flight and Kat to turn the painting over to her mother.
“I’d like to give the portrait to Kat instead of the senator’s aide,” I said when Jack hung up from his hushed-voice call to Interpol. “I’ll tell her that her dad knows, but I think this needs to be a family conversation instead of one originating with an employee.”
“Agreed. Is she meeting you at the airport?”
“We’ll have a greeting party for the journal once we get to Miami. The suits are definitely interested.”
I smiled into oncoming headlights and merged onto the freeway. “Our low-tech blackmailer has just become an even lower lowlife.”
“And you, my love, have gained the prize that will give hundreds of innocent women their lives back.”
“One nasty bad guy down, one art criminal mastermind still to go.”
A few hours later—both of us changed out of our burgling black— Jack and I sat in the Orlando airport waiting for our flight. His left forearm appropriated our shared armrest. Every time he moved I smelled the new cologne he was wearing, pleasing sandalwood scent that lingered. Dressed in his standard suit, this time brown with white shirt, he livened everything up by adding a bright-teal silk tie. The color perfectly matched his eyes, and I wondered what woman had given it to him. Jack tended to appear naturally comfortable in any setting, which was one of the reasons I had difficulty trusting him.
I saved the article I’d hurried to finish, pulled up my email to Flavia, attached the file, and hit send. The subject was one near and dear to my heart—women and art. Several months ago, I’d promised a piece to the Association for Women’s Advancement in Art. An old friend, Flavia Bello, ran the organization. If I’d had the money, I would be a benefactor. Instead, I happily completed the occasional article for its newsletter. Unfortunately, in the past weeks’ craziness I’d totally forgotten about the article until Flavia forwarded a reminder email along with information about the upcoming fundraising event featuring women artists and subjects. I reread the invitations and sighed. Florence, Italy, this Saturday night.
Working on it with Jack around proved to be a pain. Interminable waiting at the airport for a flight made him more fidgety. Finally, he’d left my side long enough to acquire drinks and snacks, and I’d taken advantage of the blessed silence to finish up the article.
I slid my computer back into my bag, stood, and stretched. I couldn’t help thinking about Kat and the conjectures and decisions she would make in the coming weeks. I planned to call and check on her, but it was a journey she needed to walk on her own.
The silent tears she shed as I told her were the first of many. Like her, I had a father who had deeply disappointed me. Unlike Kat’s, mine accomplished the feat in a wholly spectacular manner that didn’t simply deprive me of my last possibility of familial support but snatched away forever the environment I’d known from birth until age seventeen. I survived by acknowledging I could no longer count on anyone but myself, built a personal armor around my heart, and developed a trust-radar and lie-detector system the CIA would envy. Hopefully, Kat would not have to do the same.
Relax. Close your eyes. We had new things to worry about.
Tinny music emanated from the iPod of the kid sitting next to me, and I drowsily wondered at the volume the device was cranked up to—his head nodding and earbuds blasting—since I had no difficulty determining the music as Nirvana. I dozed a few minutes before jerking myself awake to glance at my watch.
Jack had been gone twenty minutes too long. His errands should have taken “seven” minutes, a direct quote, but he’d been gone twenty-seven—now eight, as I watched my minute hand move. If my watch was correct and the airline hadn’t rescheduled the flight, we were due to board in little more than fifteen minutes. A phone call went to email. Anyone else and I would have shrugged the tardiness off and waited for his return. Since it was Jack, though, waiting wasn’t an option. If he discovered a new lead and was reconning solo—without telling me, to keep me in the dark—I wanted to find out. Now. I didn’t trust the man not to shut me out of things. If that wasn’t the case…Well, I needed to make sure he didn’t need backup. We were supposed to be working together, after all.
I grabbed my bag and walked from the gate to the hallway. I was not going to panic. Instead, I focused on my surroundings. I smelled food, coffee, and that particular odor airports have as people move exhaustedly from one geographical space to another, a culmination of a variety of cultures and varying degrees of unwashed bodies. Jack had indicated he wanted coffee. I headed that direction, dodging a couple of bored kids playing with a tiny rubber ball. No Hawkes. With the clock ticking down the minutes, I race-walked in and out of various outlets housing magazines, newspapers, books, souvenirs, and food, eventually finding a lone wall of canteen snacks for picky customers who didn’t want fresh, only processed.
Bathrooms offered the next option, both men’s and women’s, and I ran through each, checking stalls. The men were naturally shocked, but the women offered more vocal outrage. In the last men’s stall, I found Jack’s bag, contents scattered everywhere and what looked like a few drops of blood on the floor. I thrust his stuff back into the bag, carefully avoiding the blood, and headed back to the main hallway. Frantically looking in every direction, I did not want to return to the security area, and I didn’t think anyone else would have gone that way either.
I turned to look back toward the waiting area, hoping to see Jack waving frantically. No luck. For a second, my gaze was drawn to a matronly woman with a huge flowered hat. An entourage of some kind followed her, all headed my way.
As they passed the water fountain, I spotted a door marked No Entry. I hadn’t noticed it earlier due to a group of kids fighting over the water fountain and the fact the door completely matched the surrounding walls.
My large Fendi purse and the wheeled bags helped hide my actions from the casual observer, and, I hoped, from the standard security cameras. The locked door presented no problem. Within a minute or so, I had it open with the set of tools I carried in a hidden pocket of my purse.
I replaced the tool and grabbed out of the pack a deceptively innocent-looking instrument with a sharp edge. For extra protection.
The wide storage room held a variety of supplies on seemingly endless high shelves and no clear view. Nothing to do but run for it. I slipped off my heels and ran, holding the bags tightly to my sides as I looked up and down each aisle. I stopped suddenly as I thought I heard something. I started to call out but worried I might alert the wrong person to my presence.
Only a few minutes left before the flight boarded. I headed back toward the other end of the room, on guard the whole way, and hoped the noise was Jack.
I stepped around the last shelf and gaped. Trussed up like a holiday turkey, Hawkes was hanging by ropes from the shelf bolted to the floor, his silk tie thrust in his mouth. Under his angry black eyebrows, his teal eyes shot murderous looks my way. He mumbled something and jerked at the ropes to shake the shelf, disturbing the plastic tumblers stacked in thin see-through bags all around him. Two packages closest to him tottered violently, fell off, and burst open. The freed tumblers rolled everywhere to join compatriots, which had apparently been knocked down during the hanging.
Though relieved to see him, I wanted to laugh. I had imagined him strung up many times. I thought seriously about pulling out my phone and taking a picture, but I didn’t want to risk the death my poor smartphone would likely suffer after Jack was free.
I quickly looked him over, trying to determine the source of the blood I’d seen in the stall. Other than the rope chafing, a small cut was visible at the edge of his left eyebrow. The brows pulled together in a thunderous V.
The handle of my weapon went into my mouth, to free my hands for climbing. I let the bags slide from my arms. My Manolo Blahniks were discarded next. I climbed several of the shelves and used my tool to saw at one of the ropes holding him in place. His muttering got louder. I knew I should pull the tie out of his mouth, but I didn’t want the complaints to start.
The tool was sharp. Before I cut the second one holding him, I needed to cut the rope binding his hands, so he could protect himself as he fell. With a bit of difficulty, I sliced through the professional knots. He jerked the tie from his mouth.
“Bloody hell, Laurel, what took you so long to find me? Have we missed the flight?”
“Get ready, the rope’s about to give way.” I ignored his questions as I took a final swipe.
“What do you mean—” Jack’s words became incoherent as he dropped to the floor amidst the plastic ware.
His next words weren’t meant for polite company as he struggled to undo the knots around his ankles. I climbed down and handed him my tool, which he ungraciously took and sliced through the rope with more expertise than I had demonstrated. He rubbed his ankles and his wrists. I could tell from the way he was moving that his whole body hurt. It looked like a small bruise was forming around the ugly cut at his brow and the shadow of another under his chin.
“I guess the blood in the bathroom was from the cut near your eye?” I used a tissue to dab at the cut. He took the tissue from me and held it tightly to his temple, then shoved it into a pocket.
He looked at his Silberstein. It hadn’t been a robbery. “What makes you think it wasn’t from the other guy?” he asked irritably as he held a shelf to steady himself. “Come on, we have to go. Thank God we’re already checked in and the gate is close.”
“Because nobody hurt could have attached you to those shelves like a string of holiday lights.” I countered the earlier question he used to avoid answering what I’d asked.
He ignored me, stuffed his tie in his suit pocket, straightened his clothing, picked up his case and mine. We took off for the gate, arriving with very little time to spare.
The plane boasted the standard East Coast, in-state shuttle accommodations, crammed to the wing flaps with coach seating. Seventy passengers filled the small commuter jet, with a column of two seats on the left side of the aisle and a width of three seats on the right. The flight spent little actual time in the air compared to the eternity waiting on the tarmac. Still, I figured I could grab a quick nap and intended to do so without delay.
Our seats together were on the small side of the plane. He wanted the aisle, and I gave no argument to sitting and scootching into the window seat. I raised to straighten the skirt of the gray knit dress I got the last time I was in Peru. It was scrunchable and one of my favorites for traveling. It also went great with my favorite heels.
Jack had charmed the flight attendant out of a Glenfiddich before takeoff and was visibly relaxed when he glanced over at me and said, “They were airport workers. Or at least they were dressed like airport maintenance with a utility cart.”
A utility cart with a lot of rope. I bit my lip. “What do you think they wanted?”
“I’m inclined to think they wanted to stop us from taking the flight. They were only interested in subduing me.” He flexed the hand not holding the drink. “But how did you have that sharp tool?”
“A special storage case designed for me by a German craftsman,” I explained. It wouldn’t hold a large weapon, yet it could escape the detection of metal detectors and appeared innocuous under X-ray. “A thoughtful favor I received recently from an old friend.” Then I pointed up at the overhead compartment. “You probably should check your bag. I found the contents scattered in the stall.”
Jack shrugged. “I’m not worried. Nothing in the bag for them to find.”
I took a sip from my water bottle. “What would their—whoever they are—interest be in stopping you from taking the flight?”
“Or you.” He took a long swig and put the glass on the tray, the cubes rattling against the plastic glass.
“Why would it have necessarily stopped me?”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Your loyalty is well-known. And you did locate me, after all.”
“But I may have gotten on the plane alone if I hadn’t discovered where they’d trapped you. Simply notified the desk agent you were missing.”
He shot me a look that made me laugh.
“I really am glad you’re all right. But I do regret not getting a picture when I had the chance. I seriously thought about it, but figured it was leverage you’d never let me use.”
“Right on that count. Would you really have left me?”
“Maybe…” I let the word hang for a moment before I added, “If I thought you’d taken off to follow a lead solo again. It wouldn’t have been the first time. And the suspicion did cross my mind.”
Jack handed his glass to the passing attendant. “You do know I would never do anything without reason. Right? However, when going for a cup of coffee requires rescue, it proves there are no innocent errands for either of us. I’m just glad this time I’m not dead.”
I shuddered through a deep breath and looked at him with astonishment. “What did you say?”
“You heard me—I’ll not repeat it. I equally cannot believe anyone could get the drop on me like that.”
“I’m glad you aren’t dead as well,” I repeated solemnly, then winked to lighten the mood. I would never tell him how true that was. It would give him too much power. “Do you think we’ll ever know who’s responsible?”
Jack stared into the distance. “Oh, I’m certain I’ll find out.” From the tone of his voice, I could tell that his words were a vow.
Even before we’d taken off, I had my napping plan rolled out. I pulled on my sleep mask to firmly cover my eyes. I figured the two-seat side was best as I didn’t have to worry about anyone crossing over me for the next half hour or so. The flight met capacity levels in both human and hearing volume, and as with all the short hoppers I’d traveled on through the years, the noise levels in the plane were tremendous. No matter. The steady rumble was pure white noise to me. No frills had its benefits.
Alas, my rest was not to be. We had barely lifted the landing gear when Jack’s shoulder leaned into mine. He asked, “Laurel, are you asleep?”
Ignoring him should have been easy. I could have used the plane noise as an excuse if he persisted. But I knew Jack, and when he persevered I risked blowing my top due to no sleep and less patience. I lifted one side of the sleep mask, not willing to give up yet on my dream. “I’m trying, Jack. I was a little too busy last night to get my full eight hours.”
“Which brings up the subject I want to discuss.” He cocked a black eyebrow at me, and I was reading his lips more than truly hearing each word as he continued. “I hope this foray into crime is your first and last. The value of the theft you attempted would put a felony on your record if those coppers last night had caught you.”
I moved the whole mask to my hairline, so he could see me lift my own eyebrow questioningly as I reminded, “Aren’t you the one who left with the masterpiece? I recall spiriting away a lowly journal law enforcement can only use to get on to a trail of human traffickers. Since it meets no chain-of-evidence rules, it couldn’t be more than a misdemeanor given its market value. Perhaps you should look inward, Mr. Hawkes. I think you can keep busy enough examining your own personality flaws. But thanks for your concern.”
He snorted. I wiggled the dark mask back into place.
“Still, love…” His fingers lifted up a corner of the mask. I again saw that cocky eyebrow. “You possessed more than average nerve whilst we each traipsed through the little midnight caper. You were angry but confident when we met up at the car.”
“You mean when you broke into my car and stashed your loot in my backseat? Wow, now that I think about it, Jack, your transgressions are really piling up. Maybe it would be best if I not associate with you anymore. Bad influence and all that.”
Due to our too-close confinement, I hoped this exchange was the end of his questions. I could deflect a lot and had my personal arsenal of point maneuvers which worked against most people. Except Jack Hawkes was not most people. My extracurricular activities were known to old and trusted confidents, no further. These wrongs righted, what I deemed my “reclamation projects,” had gone undetected for some time by all facets of law enforcement, and I intended to keep the status quo precisely as I preferred it. While I’d been close to getting caught several times, even spotted on three separate occasions, I’d never actually been apprehended or even positively identified. I’d also never before had an adversary like Jack Hawkes. Someone who learned about my exploits by getting there minutes ahead of me. Someone who from the time I met him operated under the assumption I was more than I seemed.
Well, I never said the man wasn’t bright. Hopefully, flip answers and the fact he got to the painting first was enough to shut down further discussion.
I jerked the satin mask from his fingers and repositioned it one last time over my eyes. To no avail.
“Speaking of associates.” Jack ripped the mask completely off my head. I glared at him as I tried to use fingers and my vague reflection in the thick airplane window glass to reduce the clown mess my blond waves likely took on from the flinging elastic. My blue eyes were a blur, but even the poor reflection showed they were narrowed in anger below my thin brows.
“Were we speaking of associates? I honestly don’t remember previous conversations along those lines.” I shrugged and changed my look to my patented bored face. Allowing Jack to witness any negative emotion on my part made him feel he’d scored points and goaded him into continuing for the kill. Okay, maybe kill wasn’t the best word to consider in our present adventure.
He tossed the black mask into my lap. “I’ve been reviewing every idea I’ve come up with in the past week, and I cannot figure out why Moran didn’t kill you or have you killed anytime between London and Le Puy-en-Velay. He could have done so many times, with ease and little risk of exposure. Even accomplished the deed himself, we now know.”
“We now assume. No one’s given me confirmation yet about his French alias as my vehicular knight in shining armor.”
“Consider it confirmed.”
Damn, I hate when he knows stuff before me. Especially when I should have already been notified. “Is there a reason Interpol never bothered telling me?” I crossed my arms. “Assured them you would tell me yourself, and you forgot to mention it?”
“I received final confirmation an hour ago. This was really my first opportunity.”
Not exactly, but I’d let it slide this time. “You’re right, Jack. But as I recall, you were the one who almost strangled me in France. Should I be concerned by your close proximity?”
“Keep this up, and I may try it again.” He frowned. “I’m not joking here, Laurel. I want to know if you have something on Moran.”
That was a paradox I’d been contemplating for days. My quick wits had worked overtime, but I was still walking and breathing and thinking. Even Simon was confused, lamenting right before he escaped that if he shot me, then he would pay for the act later.
Jack’s next question pulled me out of my funk. “Did Moran know your grandfather? They had to be near-contemporaries. Maybe he owed your grandfather a debt of honor?”
“It’s possible,” I said, but I had difficulty believing the theory.
It was more likely my crooked father had made Moran’s acquaintance, rather than my straight-arrow grandfather. Dear Old Daddy may have even owed the criminal mastermind a huge debt when he died in the Swiss avalanche. It was six months before the mangled body was found and his dentist provided the evidence to prove those lovely veneers were my father’s.
Daddy Dearest owed every other blackheart. Moran’s plan could easily be to spare my life to try to get a final debt repaid. Though, since I had little money, I wasn’t sure what I could offer in repayment. It had been nearly a decade since my father’s death, sure, but I’d never heard of a statute of limitations on outstanding markers.
After my grandfather joined my grandmamma in the great beyond, my father happily fell headlong into a two-year gambling, spending, debauchery spree to end all real and imagined by Hollywood. Despite the wealth our family accumulated over many generations, by the time my father went over the wrong side of his favorite Alp with his latest bimbo, he had nearly run through the entire estate. He’d left IOUs all over Europe and the Americas. Any money that remained tied to Grandfather’s estate was used to keep all my limbs firmly connected to my torso by paying off the drug dealers and mob bosses who crawled out of the woodwork to intimidate me through direct and indirect contact.
“So, has Moran had any dealings with the Beacham Foundation?” Jack asked.
“You mean besides having his plans changed whenever I find something he’s stolen and get it returned to the original owners?” I replied. When Jack nodded, I shook my head. “Not that I know of, but I’ve only worked full-time with the foundation five years. Until I graduated from Cornell, I worked temporarily in different departments in an intern capacity, due to the fierce loyalty Max, my boss, had to my grandfather’s memory.”
“And you, I assume, were supposed to take over the foundation.”
Yes, he’d obviously been reading my file again. My voice bordered on sarcasm when I said, “Grandfather always hoped I’d take my place in the business, but that, of course, was when he held ninety percent of the stock. Once the foundation became Beacham in name and tradition alone, I’m basically nothing more than an employee. I may learn more in the coming months with my new position, but I doubt Max will change much. You know as well as I that he’s keeping a pretty tight noose around my neck.”
“I think you mean leash.”
I shrugged. “Leash, noose, both can choke the life right out of you.”