The Painting

📅 Published on April 4, 2022

“The Painting”

Written by J.C. Fields
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 26 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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In the world of international stolen art, an individual known only as Henri, was considered the world’s most successful thief.

However, friends, neighbors, and business associates, knew him as Marcel Leblanc, a polite, proper and jovial man in his late forties who owned a seemingly successful import and export company. This establishment and its location in the sovereign state of Monaco, allowed him to mingle with many of the world’s richest individuals.

Little did they know, his affluence did not come from his import/export company. Proceeds from this particular endeavor barely paid the electric bill for his Mediterranean coastal estate. His real wealth came from the acquisition of rare paintings. Once these paintings were stolen from public galleries or the best museums, they disappeared into the private collection of the mega-rich, or somewhere else.

To evade detection of his clandestine vocation by authorities, he worked through a broker. This individual communicated the wants and wishes of clients who coveted certain paintings or articles of historic importance. The man knew Marcel Leblanc only as Henri. Face-to-face meetings were forbidden. Communications were normally instigated by his broker with an ad in France’s national newspaper Le Monde. Leblanc read it every day at a seaside café with his morning coffee and croissant.

An ad of interest to Leblanc would feature a particular winery in the Bordeaux region. Whenever the ad included a rare vintage from Chateau Latour calling for patrons to secure a bottle while supplies lasted, he knew to call a specific number from an untraceable mobile phone. Once he identified himself with a series of numbers, the broker would come on and tell him the latest requests from the rich collectors.

On a late May morning, Leblanc saw the ad and made the call. The electronic voice prompted. “Enter your security code.”

After punching in his eight-digit number, he heard. “Bonjour, Monsieur Henri.”

“Good morning, Arthur. I saw the ad.” Leblanc spoke with a non-descript accent. He felt this created an air of mystery to his country of origin.

“Excellent. Are you in a position to do a little international travel?”

“It depends. Where?”

“United States.”

“Possibly. Where exactly in the states?”

“New Orleans. The French Quarter.”

“Ah—I have not had the pleasure of visiting there for a long time. I look forward to it.”

“Good, the money being offered is double your normal fee.”

Leblanc unconsciously moistened his lips. “I am impressed, Arthur.”

“The item my client is interested in is hanging in a privately owned hotel on Toulouse Street.”

“Even better.”

“There is a bonus if the owner is unaware the painting is missing for a while.”

“Oh?”

“Are you still interested?”

“Of course. Give me the details.”

* * * * * *

One Week Later

“Good afternoon, sir. May I help you?

Leblanc smiled as he offered his Platinum American Express card. “Yes, reservation for Black. Marcus Black.”

“Certainly, sir. Welcome to the Bristol Hotel. I see you are scheduled for four nights, is that correct?”

“Yes, I might need to stay six, will that be a problem?”

“Of course not.” The attractive, professionally dressed woman offered him her best smile as she typed on her computer keyboard. “Not a problem, Mr. Black. I have you staying until the twelfth. How many key cards do you need?”

“Just one.”

“Just one?” She asked with a gleam in her eye and a raised eyebrow.

“Alas, it is just me.”

“Is this your first time in New Orleans?”

“Yes.” He lied. “I’m a writer and here doing research for my next book.”

“I see. If you need directions to any particular location, please don’t hesitate to ask me.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

She handed back his American Express card and a small envelope containing his plastic key card. “Can I assist you with anything else?”

Leblanc glanced at her left hand and noticed the lack of a ring. “At the moment, I can’t think of anything.”

With a slight nod, she said, “Have a nice stay with us. Please do not hesitate to ask me any questions.”

He started to turn, but hesitated. “One more thing.”

“Yes, Mr. Black.”

“I understand the hotel has a painting hanging somewhere by the artist Mary Cassatt.”

“Yes, we’re quite proud of it.”

“Can you tell me where it is?”

“I can do better. Meet me here in the lobby at six, and I will personally show it to you.”

* * * * * *

At exactly six p.m., the attractive female introduced herself as Arianna Gold, the concierge.

Leblanc said, “It is very nice to meet you Ms. Gold.”

“Please call me Arianna.”

“Only if you call me, Marc.”

“It’s a deal. Now, let me show you our magnificent art gallery.”

“An art gallery? Even better.”

He walked beside her as she pointed toward a set of double doors. “The gallery is only open for certain guests.”

“Should I be honored you are providing me with a tour.”

She laughed. “Yes. It is my pleasure.”

“I will have to determine a way to repay you for the kindness.”

“Dinner would be nice.”

Leblanc raised an eyebrow. “Indeed. I had no plans, where would you like to go?”

“Let’s take the tour first. Then we can decide.”

She opened the double doors with a pass key. As he entered, he passed through a cold pocket of air. He looked at her with a frown as she closed and locked the entrance behind him.

“We keep the temperature low and the door locked.”

“I see.” Leblanc surveyed the small gallery and immediately recognized numerous high-dollar paintings. His eyes fell immediately on one by Paul Cezanne and another by Claude Monet. “Impressive. Is the Cezanne an original?”

“You know your art. All of our pieces are originals. Some are lithographs, but we also have original oils with verified provenances.”

Leblanc turned to his guide. “Amazing. I’m curious as to why they are in a hotel?”

“Very simple, Marc. This is the personal collection of the hotel’s owner.”

“Ah…” He paused for a moment. “Let’s see what he’s collected.”

The scope of the gallery impressed Leblanc and he saw numerous paintings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When they neared the back of the gallery, he saw the painting he sought. It was an impressionistic piece by Mary Cassatt. He stopped for a few moments to admire it. Arianna stood next to him and said, “Are you a fan of Ms. Cassatt?”

“I’m familiar with most of her work, but I don’t recognize this piece.”

“That’s because it’s the portrait of a man who had an affair with Ms. Cassatt during the summer of 1875 while she studied in Paris. She painted his portrait just before he returned to the United States.”

Bending over to study the brush strokes closer, Leblanc asked. “And who might her lover have been?”

“That is confidential.”

Smiling, Leblanc straightened and moved over to a painting next to the Cassatt. He stared at it for a fairly long time without saying a word. Arianna stood quietly behind him without interrupting his concentration. Finally, he turned to her. “This is a fascinating piece. Who painted it?”

“The artist is unknown. Although it has been in our inventory for as long as the gallery has been open. I agree with you. One can feel the allure of the scene and get lost in its background.”

Leblanc folded his arms. “Is it for sale?”

“No, none of these pieces are. The owner is very protective of them.”

“Please tell the owner I am impressed with his collection. He should be proud of it.”

Arianna only smiled.

* * * * * *

Over the course of the next few days, Leblanc occupied his time trying to discover the identity of the elusive hotel owner. He also made a habit of having dinner with the lovely Ms. Gold on a nightly basis.

After spending numerous days attempting to find the elusive fellow, he came to the conclusion the man might be dead.

During this time, Leblanc began to determine how he could remove the Cassatt painting from the gallery without raising too much attention. On the fifth evening of his stay, an unexpected invitation from Arianna Gold solidified his plan.

* * * * * *

“Are you sure you have to leave the day after tomorrow, Marc?”

“I’m a writer, Arianna. I can work from anywhere.”

“Is that a no, you don’t have to leave just yet”

“That’s exactly what it is. But I will need to extend my stay at the hotel.”

The woman smiled and sipped her wine. “You’ve treated me to dinner the last four nights. The least I could do is offer you a place to stay while you finish your research.”

Raising an eyebrow, he too sipped his wine. “And where would that be?”

“I have an extra room in my apartment. You could stay there until you complete your work.”

Leblanc realized this would give him easy access to her gallery key and an unexpected way to acquire the Cassatt. He raised his glass and clinked it against hers. “I accept your gracious hospitality.”

* * * * * *

A Week Later

The warmth and passion of Ms. Gold’s bed was hard to leave, but Leblanc realized he knew enough about access to the gallery to acquire the needed painting and leave the room without being seen by any of the hotel personnel. On his last night in New Orleans, he prepared a meal for Arianna and himself.

“Marc, I did not realize you were a gourmet chef.” Arianna raised her wine glass as she complimented Leblanc.

“When you live by yourself, you either learn to cook or you go hungry.”

“You have never told me where you live?”

A half-smile graced the art thief’s lips. “I’m something of a gypsy, actually. But I do have a cabin in the Smoky Mountains I use as my home base.”

“I imagine it is beautiful.”

“It is.”

She began to unbutton her blouse. “You will have to take me there someday.”

He watched her as he took another sip of wine. “Yes. Someday.”

She stood and turned her back to him. The blouse fell to the floor as she walked toward the bedroom. “I do hope you are behind me.”

After draining his glass, he stood and followed.

An hour later as they lay in each other’s arms, she said, “You’ve been very quiet tonight. Is something wrong?”

“Just thinking.”

“About?”

“The painting next to the Cassatt. I can’t get it out of my mind.”

“I think about it a lot myself.”

Five minutes later, he heard her breathing slow. Carefully and quietly, he pushed the covers back and went to the room where he kept his things. He retrieved an aerosol container of nitrous oxide from his duffle bag and a syringe with a small vial containing a clear liquid.

He returned to Arianna’s bedroom and placed a washcloth over his mouth and nose. He released the gas and waited. After a few minutes he pinched her arm. No reaction. Filling the syringe with the clear liquid, he found the carotid artery on her neck and slipped the needle in. He then pushed the plunger until it stopped. After waiting a few minutes, he asked. “Arianna, tell me how to gain access to the gallery.”

The information gleaned from the drugged woman revealed the existence of a passageway into the gallery behind a door labeled maintenance. The physical key, found in her purse, opened a door located in a dark alley on the north side of the hotel. In addition, he learned of a panel where the security system could be disabled. She revealed the code during the last question he asked her. Then before leaving her apartment, he kissed her forehead and checked for a pulse. She maintained a strong heartbeat. Once satisfied she was okay, he let himself out.

* * * * * *

The key and the security code worked without incident. Once again, as he entered the gallery, he felt a cold pocket of air surround him. Brushing the feeling to the side, he moved silently to the partition where the Cassatt hung. He held a small powerful flashlight in his teeth as he removed the painting from its frame. He then returned the empty frame to the wall.

As he slipped the canvass into a large cloth satchel, he pointed the flashlight at the painting he had admired next to it. He shrugged, removed it from the wall and placed it next to the Cassatt in the satchel. Before exiting the gallery, he liberated both the Cezanne and the Monet from their place of honor in the room. Back in the alley, he retrieved a bucket of gasoline and placed it next to a wall where he found the Cassatt. A long strip of cloth hung over the side. He lit this with a match and hurried out the exit.

Twenty-four hours later, he boarded a charter jet at the Matamoros International Airport in Mexico.

* * * * * *

Monaco

Two Days Later

The process for Leblanc to contact his broker required him to send a text message to a specific number. The message contained only one symbol and numerals, a question mark and the phone number for his burner phone. Twenty minutes later, the cell phone rang.

“Bonjour.”

“Do you, have it?”

“Yes.”

“Describe.”

Leblanc held the phone to his ear with his shoulder as he held the painting. “Eighty-eight by fifty-two centimeters, oil on canvas, impressionist, 1875, Cassatt.”

“Excellent. Where there any complications?”

“None. The fact the painting is missing will be hard to determine.”

“Excellent, your fee and bonus will be transferred today. Please send the article by our standard protocol.”

Without another word, Leblanc ended the call, removed the battery and crushed the small phone with his heel. He then returned his attention to the painting. “I’m not sure why anyone would pay two million euros for this.”

* * * * * *

Two Days Later

After returning from a trip to Nice where he visited a storage unit and shipped the Cassatt to a DHL location in Paris, Leblanc sipped coffee on his sea-facing veranda. A warm breeze blew in from the southeast as he studied the unsigned painting liberated from the New Orleans hotel gallery. “Where shall I hang you?” He mused as he raised the coffee cup to his lips.

The picture portrayed a winter nightscape of a dark forest trail winding off into the distance at the top left. A stream meandered in the right lower corner. The artist’s brush strokes made the water appear to flow toward the corner. A full moon appeared halfway up from the horizon shining through bare limbs of trees. The light reflected off numerous patches of snow scattered on the woodland floor and stream. The effect of the picture on a viewer created an eerie and foreboding sensation. Leblanc found it mesmerizing.

He studied the painting attempting to determine if the brush strokes were by anyone he had encountered before. Whoever the artist, they were a master at lighting and composition.

At the upper left corner in the middle of the trail, a three-millimeter vertical dark line could be seen. He did not remember seeing it on any of his earlier examinations. Leblanc laid the picture down and went inside his house to retrieve a magnifying glass. When he returned to the veranda and the painting, the dark line could no longer be seen.

“Huh.”

* * * * * *

Six Months Later

After the successful execution of two more acquisition trips, Marcel Leblanc decided to take a break from his larcenous lifestyle and concentrate on his import/export business. However, his habit of reading La Monde every morning remained. On this particular delightful morning, a light breeze blew in from the southwest, warming the terrace where he sat.

His eye caught the image of an ad for the winery. It announced an urgent warning for patrons of Chateau Latour. He went inside his residence, grabbed an unused burner phone and dialed the number of his broker. After passing the security protocols, he heard the familiar voice say. “We may have a problem, Monsieur Henri.”

“Oh, what might that be?”

“The Mary Cassatt you acquired some months back was not the correct painting. The one you provided was supposedly destroyed a long time ago.”

“I don’t see how this should concern me.”

“The client wants their money back.”

Leblanc laughed. “No refunds, Arthur, you know that.”

“Yes, I explained it to them, more than once.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“They think it is a forgery and are threatening to expose our endeavors.”

Leblanc remained quiet for a few moments as he considered his response. “Arthur, if you have maintained your security protocols, there is no way they can expose our activities.”

“It is not our network they are threatening. They plan to contact the hotel where the painting was acquired. Doing so could lead Interpol to the discovery of who stole it.”

“Doubtful.”

“Can you take that chance?”

Once again, the conversation paused for a few moments. “Did you remind them they were the ones who gave us the article’s location?”

“Yes, several times.”

“They could be implicated as well”

“I mentioned that.”

“Very well, Arthur” He paused. “Remind them, this operation is a two-way street. If they attempt to expose me, I will burn them down.”

“Understood.”

The call ended and Leblanc pursed his lips as he focused on the horizon of the southeast Mediterranean.

The first call Leblanc made went to the hotel owned by the family of Arianna Gold.

“Bristol Hotel, how may we serve you?”

“I would like to speak to Arianna Gold.”

“Beg your, pardon. Who did you ask for?”

“Arianna Gold.”

“I’m sorry sir, no one by that name works here.”

Leblanc raised an eyebrow. “She was the concierge when I stayed there six months ago. She was most helpful.”

“Once again, I am sorry, sir. I have worked here for ten years and there has never been anyone by that name.”

“I see. Sorry, my mistake.”  Leblanc ended the call without another word. He stood and returned to the interior of his residence to dismantle the burner phone. When he passed the painting, taken on a whim during his last night in New Orleans, his eye caught something different in the upper left-hand corner. The vertical line had returned, only this time it was twice the length of the original marking and further down the trail.

He stopped and leaned closer to where the painting hung. With a frown, he immediately went to his office and returned to the painting, this time with a magnifying glass. As he examined the mark, he could see a small stick figure. Two rudimentary arms and legs each. With a start, he backed away from the picture and straightened. “What the hell.”

Regaining his composure, he leaned closer to the canvas. This time, he could see a round appendage at the top of the vertical line. Grasping the picture, he removed it from the wall and hurried to his workshop where he kept instruments designed to closely examine paintings.

Using a large magnifying tool with a bright light surrounding the lens, he placed the painting underneath it and switched on the light. The miniature stick figure was gone.

* * * * * *

Leblanc sat in front of his laptop and used Google to search for an Arianna Gold in New Orleans. The results of his searches found three individuals by that name. One would celebrate her seventy-ninth birthday in two days. The next was an aspiring track star for a local high school and the third individual with the name was found in an obituary from the late 1940s.

His next search centered on a law firm in Dallas. The tenth-largest legal organization in the city advertised the services of Arthur Gold. Using another of his collection of burner phones, he called the law firm.

“Thank you for calling the offices of Abrams, Ledger and Gold. How can I help you?”

“May I speak to Arthur Gold?”

“Mr. Gold is in court this morning. May I ask whose calling?”

“Yes, Marcus Black.”

“What is the nature of your inquiry for Mr. Gold?”

“It is a personal matter. When do you expect him back?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss, Mr. Gold’s itinerary. Would you like to leave a number so he can call you back?”

“Just tell him I called. He’ll know the name.” Leblanc pressed the end icon on his cell phone and then drummed his fingers on the desk. The time in Texas would be seven hours behind him in Monaco. Leblanc decided he would call again around nine p.m.

* * * * * *

“Thank you for calling the offices of Abrams, Ledger and Gold. How may I help you?”

“Arthur Gold, please.”

“May I say who’s calling?”

“Marcus Black, I called earlier today.”

“Please hold.”

Leblanc listened to a guitar instrumental of a song he did not recognize for over a minute. Then a new female voice asked. “Arthur Gold’s office. This is Mary, can I help you?”

“Yes, I am trying to contact Mr. Gold. Is he available?”

“May I ask what this is in reference to?”

“Yes, I am trying to locate his daughter.”

The silence on the phone lasted for what seemed like an eternity. He checked to make sure the call was still connected. It was. The art thief stood and walked over to the painting and stared at it while he waited. What he saw made him end the call and stare at the painting.

In very clear detail, halfway down the painted trail, a figure could be seen. With its back to the moon, Leblanc saw a shadow cast onto the trail by the figure, just like an artist would create. While no details were clear, he could distinguish arms, legs and a head on the figure.

Knowing what had happened the last time he took his eyes off the painting, he removed it from the wall and retraced his steps to his desk. Without looking, he rummaged around in the top drawer until he put his hand on the magnifying glass.

Placing it over the figure, he let out a gasp.

The face on the shadowy figure, while somewhat grainy, was that of Arianna Gold.

* * * * * *

The Next Day

The sun barely peeked over the horizon of the Mediterranean as Marcel Leblanc realized he had stayed on his veranda all night. Sleep seemed to be a companion to avoid as it brought on images he did not care to see or experience.

The figure on the mysterious painting faded before his very eyes the night before. What the image appearing and disappearing meant, he could only guess. None of his speculations were comforting.

Standing, he entered the house and brought the painting back to the veranda, with the intent of heaving it over the railing into the turbulent waters below. He walked to the edge and looked down. Waves crashed against the rocky bluff thirty-five meters below his veranda. He rarely heard the constant sound anymore due to the continuous nature of waves pounding the shore.

He hesitated before throwing the painting into the surf, his eyes taking a last glance at it. The figure materialized, but larger than the day before. This time he could clearly see the features of Arianna’s beautiful face as she stared at him from the trail. Her eyes seemed to pierce his soul.

“Damn.” He yelled, dropping the painting onto the terracotta tiles. The damage caused by the fall separated the picture from the frame and splintered the joints holding the wooden pieces together. Taking several deep breaths, he picked up the canvas. The figure did not fade as usual but remained, her eyes burning into him.

Leblanc turned and hurried back inside the seaside mansion. He placed the canvas in a storage area and turned off the light.

As morning faded, winds blew in from the southeast and a rare tropical cyclone event known as a medicane hit the area with gale-force winds of forty kph. Wind and rain pounded on the glass windows facing the sea until late in the afternoon. When the sun peaked out from the rapidly retreating clouds, he returned to his office and powered up a burner cell phone. He sent a text message to a specific number with the customary symbol and numerals.

The phone rang five minutes later.

He answered, “Arthur, it’s Henri.”

“Ah, Monsieur, I am most glad you made contact. Are you ready to get back into the game?”

“Not yet. I need you to have someone check out the hotel where I acquired the article. Something is not quite right.”

“May I ask what?”

“There were too many high-dollar objects in the gallery and when I think back on the experience, acquiring the article was way too easy.”

“Hmmm…” The broker paused for a moment. “Give me a few days.”

“I appreciate it.”

After the phone call, Leblanc returned to the veranda and proceeded to pick up leaves, twigs and multiple pieces of trash and paper littering the veranda. He spent an hour straightening outdoor furniture and removing debris, trying to go about his business without another thought to the mysterious painting.

* * * * * *

Four Days Later

Digging into his inventory of one-use phones, he sent a text message to his agent. The phone rang two minutes later.

“Bonjour.”

“Monsieur Henri, I have news about the hotel. It is owned by a conglomerate in Dallas. There is no mention of a gallery associated with the property.”

“You sent me there and I acquired the Cassatt.”

“Yes, most strange, that is what is so puzzling.”

Leblanc remained quiet for a while. “Is anyone named Gold associated with this corporation?”

“Yes, there are two. Arthur Gold, Senior and his son, Arthur Gold, Junior. Both are listed as corporate attorneys. There is also an Amanda Goldstein listed.”

“No mention of an Arianna Gold?”

“No.”

“Very well. Can you provide me the address of the law firm?”

After Arthur gave it to him, he said, “I have a job waiting, if you are interested.”

After a momentary hesitation, Leblanc said, “What and where?”

* * * * * *

Two Weeks Later

Barcelona, Spain

A string quartet played compositions by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn in the background as Marcel Leblanc mingled with the Spanish A-list celebrities and high-income elites. The gathering, in a recently renovated residence within the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, celebrated the acquisition, by its owner, of a highly sought-after set of prints by Pablo Picasso.

With wine glass in hand, Leblanc studied the fourteen prints proudly displayed for the attendees on a newly installed stand-alone wall in the center of her large living area. From what he could determine without a detailed examination, they appeared genuine. These fourteen prints were his target.

The owner, an heiress to an international olive oil company and one of his larger clients for his export company, stood next to him. She said, “I am so glad you could attend our reveal party, Marcel.”

“I would not have missed it, Camila. These are magnificent.”

“Yes, my husband is very proud of what he calls his coup.”

“As he should be.” Leblanc turned to the woman, took a sip of wine and froze. Standing fifteen meters behind her, near a large picture window and chatting with three gentlemen stood the identical twin of Arianna Gold.

Camila Flores followed Leblanc’s gaze and laughed. “She has that effect on many men, Marcel. Would you like for me to introduce you?”

Taking another sip of his wine, he shook his head. “No, she looks familiar. Who is she?”

“The woman who helped us secure these magnificent prints.”

“Her name?”

“Amanda Goldstein. She’s the curator of the Picasso Museum here in Barcelona.”

“Obviously, I was mistaken about recognizing her.”

As he spoke, the woman turned her head in his direction and locked eyes with Marcel Leblanc. Staring back at her, he raised his wine glass and smiled. She broke eye contact without acknowledging his gesture and returned to conversing with the three men.

The reception lasted another two hours as Leblanc prepared to leave, the twin of Arianna Gold walked up to him. “Have we met?”

With his most gracious smile, Leblanc replied. “Unfortunately, I do not believe we have.”

She offered her hand. “Amanda Goldstein.”

As they shook, he said, “Our host told me you’re the curator of the Picasso Museum. Congratulations.”

“Thank you. I didn’t catch your name.”

He glanced at his wristwatch, “Oh, dear. I am late. Nice to have met you, Ms. Goldstein.” He walked rapidly to the front door and slipped out into one of the narrow alleys of Barcelona’s oldest section.

While walking back to his hotel, Marcel Leblanc decided to abandon his quest to steal the fourteen prints by Pablo Picasso and return immediately to his estate in Monaco.

* * * * * *

“You cannot quit, Henri.”

“Why?”

“You have a contract to fill.”

“Like I told you, I decided not to proceed with the acquisition. Since I’ve never received money for the job, I’m declaring our agreement null and void.”

There was silence on the call as Leblanc waited for his contact to protest again. “Where will I find another like you, my friend?”

“First, I’m not your friend. I am a tool you use to gather the product of your trade. I’m quite sure you know others who can do the job.”

“Yes, but you are the best.”

“Be that as it may, I am done.” He pressed the end call icon and immediately removed the battery from the cell phone. He picked up the duffel bag packed earlier, locked the door of his mansion and returned to the parked car in the estate’s circle drive. Six and a half hours later, he boarded a plane in Lyon for a flight to Paris and then on to Dallas.

* * * * * *

Dallas, Texas

Leblanc leaned against the front fender of his rental car. His arms were folded as he studied the massive five-story structure. Finding the building containing the law firm of Abrams, Ledger and Gold required little more than entering the address into one of the cell phones he brought from Monaco. His appointment with the junior Arthur Gold would not occur for another hour. This gave him time to scrutinize the building.

During the time since his last trip to the United States, he had altered his appearance. The loss of twenty pounds thinned his face. The addition of a neatly trimmed beard, shorter hair, eyes covered in blue-tinted contact lenses and blocky black rim glasses resulted in a stranger staring back from a mirror.

At the appointed time, Leblanc entered the building and walked into a three-story atrium with a reception desk manned by five young women. Four sat in front of computer monitors with headsets talking rapidly to clients. The middle woman smiled as he approached.

“May I help you?”

“Yes.” He handed her a business card and said, “Frank Dillon, I have an appointment with Arthur Gold at two.” His normally non-descript accent now contained a hint of mid-western America.

She handed the business card back. “Yes, Mr. Dillon, you are expected.” She turned and pointed toward a row of three doors. “Take one of the elevators to the fourth floor. Someone will meet you and escort you to Mr. Gold’s office.” She handed him a clip-on name badge with the word VISITOR in black font on a white background. “Please wear this while you are in the building.”

After ascending to the appointed floor, the door opened to reveal a young, professionally dressed woman. She said, “Good afternoon, please follow me.”

When they reached the end of a hallway, she gestured for him to enter an open door. She then turned and walked away. Arthur Gold rose from behind his desk, smiled and walked around to shake Leblanc’s hand.

“Mr. Dillon, I’m Arthur Gold.” They shook and he continued. “Please have a seat.”

The seat, turned out to be a leather-bound wing-back chair sitting in front of Gold’s massive desk. The attorney took a relaxed position leaning on the front edge of his desk and said, “I understand you have foreign property you wish to sell.”

“I’ve been told you are one of the best international real-estate lawyers in Dallas.”

“I am.”

“Good. I would like to discuss your firm handling the transaction.”

“We can do that. Where is this property?”

“United Kingdom on the Irish Sea.”

“I see. May I ask how you obtained this property?”

“I am the executor for the estate of my mother’s recently deceased brother. I have no desire to travel overseas to handle this mess. Therefore, I would like you to handle it.”

The lawyer gave Leblanc a sly smile. “I assume you have all the necessary paperwork to give us authorization to pursue this matter.”

“I do.”

“You mentioned mess, is there a problem with the property?”

“No, it is a coastal estate and I really don’t have the time to be flying back and forth to take care of it.”

“May I see the documentation?”

Leblanc raised a hand, palm toward the attorney. “We are not at that point, yet, Mr. Gold.”

The attorney folded his arms. “I see. What questions do you have?”

“My uncle, had a fondness for New Orleans. On his last trip there, he stayed at the Bristol Hotel.” Leblanc could see one of Gold’s eyebrows rise slightly. “Are you familiar with this property, Mr. Gold?”

“Yes.”

“He met a woman there, he told me she was the concierge. Apparently, he was quite smitten with her. Anyway, he left her a sizeable amount of money in his will. I have tried to find her, but to no avail. Since you are familiar with the hotel, could you include finding this woman on behalf of the estate?”

“We’d be happy to, Mr. Dillon. What is this woman’s name?”

“All my uncle knew was her first name, Arianna.”

This was Leblanc’s whole purpose for this masquerade of a meeting. To study Gold’s face as he said the name Arianna. The man gave no recognition of the name, not even a small flinch. Nothing, no reaction at all.

“That’s not much to go on, but if she was the concierge, we can consult the HR records of the hotel.”

Standing, Leblanc offered his hand. “Excellent. I will have my attorney prepare all of the necessary paperwork and have it overnighted to your firm. Will that suffice?”

“Yes. We didn’t discuss fees, Mr. Dillon.”

“No. Should we?”

“I don’t want you to be surprised.”

“Very well, what is your fee?”

“Twenty percent of the transaction amount.”

“That seems fair.”

The only response from Gold became a nod.

Leblanc waited for one of the three elevator doors to open on the fourth floor, his hands behind his back. He glanced over to the right of the elevators and froze. The painting he had shipped to the firm the day following the appearance of Arianna on the trail now hung at eye level five feet from where he stood.

Ignoring the ding and one of the doors opening, he moved closer to the painting to examine it. No trace of the woman’s image could be seen. He studied the brush strokes to make sure it was the same painting. He then sensed someone standing beside him.

“Haunting, isn’t it?”

Turning to his right, Leblanc saw Arthur Gold staring at the painting.

“Yes. Who is the artist?”

“My great grandfather, Abraham Goldstein.”

“It’s not signed.”

“No, there’s a reason for that.”

“Oh.”

“Antisemitism in France during the late 19th century. He fled to the United States around 1895, changed his name to Gold, and never painted again.”

“That’s a shame, he was very talented. Where did he settle?”

“New Orleans.”

Dizziness swept over Leblanc, in an attempt to hide his surprise at this revelation, he turned his head and cleared his throat.

Arthur Gold continued. “We thought the painting lost forever. It arrived from an unknown benefactor several weeks ago. The hotel you mentioned, Bristol Hotel, at one time featured an art gallery he opened in 1901. His collection was priceless. He owned the hotel and the family still has ties to the property. Unfortunately, the gallery closed not long after he died just before World War II.”

“What happened to the paintings?”

Gold turned to face Leblanc. “Unfortunately, there was a fire in the gallery, many were destroyed but some just disappeared. The family believed someone stole a number of the masterpieces and set fire to the gallery to cover up the theft. The police were no help. This piece was one of the paintings thought stolen.”

“When was the fire, Mr. Gold?”

“The same day his wife Arianna died. About 1949.”

Leblanc fell quiet as he looked toward the painting and then back at the attorney. “And the masterpieces have never been found?”

“No.” Gold tightened his lips. “It is said, the thief stole a Cezanne, a Cassatt and a Monet.” He paused for a second. “Are you an admirer of fine art, Mr. Dillon?”

The art thief did not answer as his head spun. Finally, he said, “I have been known to invest.”

An elevator door opened and a man in a business suit exited. Gold said, “There’s my next appointment, I must go. I look forward to receiving the paperwork concerning the property.” The attorney followed the other man and Leblanc slipped into the open elevator.

On his way out of the front entrance, he glanced at the security panel at the front reception desk and recognized the system the building used.

* * * * * *

1:14 a.m. Dallas, Texas

After successfully foiling the security system, Leblanc knew how much time he would have before first responders would arrive. Using the stairs, he raced up to the fourth floor, removed the nightscape painting and hurried back down. He broke his record for gaining entry and exiting a building. Exactly, four minutes and sixteen seconds from entrance to driving away from the scene. He was a mile away when the first police car arrived at the Abrams, Ledger and Gold law firm.

He returned the hotwired car to the exact place where he appropriated it two hours prior to entering the building. Wearing a black hoodie and black jeans, he pulled the hood tight and walked away from the get-away car to his rental parked several blocks away. By the time the sun rose later that morning, Leblanc sat in an airport concourse waiting on an early morning Air France flight to Paris. With luck and on-time flights, he would be back in his seaside estate by afternoon the following day.

* * * * * *

A Month Later

The day promised to be warm as Marcel Leblanc sat in the seaside café perusing the newspaper Le Monde while consuming morning coffee and a croissant. As he chewed the last bite of the pastry, he failed to notice a woman approaching his outdoor table. As a rule, he kept his back to the sea so he would be aware of anyone approaching his location. Her timing could not have been better as she sat down across from him as he turned a page in the newspaper.

Looking up, he kept as neutral of an expression as possible despite his surprise.

The woman said, “Bonjour, Monsieur Leblanc.”

Putting down his paper, he tilted his head as he said, “Bonjour, Madame. You have me at a disadvantage. May I ask your name?”

“You may. Amanda Goldstein. We met several months ago at Camila Flores’s home in Barcelona.”

“Ah, yes. Now I remember.”

“I learned of your name from Camila. She told me you handle the exporting of their olive oil.”

Leblanc kept his guard up as the woman talked. “It is excellent olive oil. Are you interested in becoming a client of my firm?”

The woman’s smile disappeared and she leaned over the table. In a lowered voice, she said, “I know who you really are. You stole something from my family and I want it back.”

Leblanc suddenly realized who this woman had to be. A smile slowly came to his lips. “Cut the theatrics lady. Your real name is Arianna Gold and you are from New Orleans.”

The woman straightened. “Arianna Gold was my grandmother. You are the man who stole her life.”

Without realizing his reaction, his jaw dropped and he stared wide-eyed at her. Recovering slightly, he said, “Now how could I have done that?”

“You stole the painting that kept her alive.”

Leblanc took a deep breath and chuckled. “I am afraid you are delusional Madam Goldstein, or whoever you believe you are.”

“Do you admit taking a painting from the art gallery at the Bristol Hotel in New Orleans?”

“I admit no such thing. Besides the art gallery burned before I was even born. So how could I have stolen a painting from it.”

“Let me ask you this. Did you see an image of Arianna appear and disappear in the painting?”

Leblanc remained silent.

“From your expression and lack of protest, I will assume you did. My grandmother’s spirit dwells in the painting. It was her favorite place to be and it gave her strength. She would only emerge when someone showed interest in the painting. You were enamored with the piece and gave her the strength to emerge for the time you two spent together. When you stole the painting from the gallery, you robbed her of a place to replenish her strength. She tried to get back to the forest, but never could. Now her spirit is lost forever and it’s your fault.”

A smirk appeared on Leblanc. “Do you expect me to believe this fantasy of yours, Ms. Goldstein?”

“I personally don’t care if you believe me or not. Do you still have the painting?”

Leblanc stood and placed a ten euro note under his coffee mug. “Have a nice day, madame.” He walked swiftly toward his turbo-charged Mini Cooper parked next to the café. She followed him, but he was in the car and speeding away before she could reach the vehicle.

His route did not take him toward his seaside mansion. Instead, he traveled north until he intersected the A8 and took it west toward Nice. Occasionally, during his drive, he would study the rear-view mirror looking for signs of being followed. He saw none.

Forty minutes later, he parked the nimble little automobile in front of a Homebox storage unit. With his entry code and key, he entered the two-by-ten-meter storage unit and shut the door. He turned on the overhead light and surveyed the paintings he stored there. Still covered by the bubble wrap used to protect it during the flight from Houston to Lyon, France. He picked up the painting stolen from the wall of the law firm of Abrams, Ledger and Gold. After carefully removing the tape, he unwrapped it and examined the canvas.

A figure standing by the edge of the stream stared back at him. It was Arianna Gold. Her arms reaching for him.

* * * * * *

With the assistance of Interpol and the French Gendarmerie, Amanda Goldstein gained access to the estate of Marcel Leblanc. It had been several days since her encounter with the man at the seaside café and he never returned home. During their search of the premises, they found records of a storage unit in Nice.

The discovery of Leblanc’s Mini Cooper in the parking lot of the storage unit provided additional evidence allowing a search warrant to be signed by a judge in Nice.

The storage locker of one Marcel Leblanc was then opened by the authorities. Inside they found multiple million-dollar works of art reported stolen over the past two decades. Amanda Goldstein, acting as a guide for the Interpol agents, assisted in taking inventory of the storage unit. When these articles were referenced against Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database, they confirmed every article in the storage unit was a confirmed stolen piece of art.

She also found a lost painting taken from the wall of an American law firm. It was a tranquil scene of a nightscape with the moon reflecting off the surface of a wandering stream.

She noted sitting next to the water were two figures holding hands. A woman and a man. Amanda displayed a slight smile and said, “Grandma-ma, it is good to see you home with your lover by your side.”

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by J.C. Fields
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: J.C. Fields


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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