ShaViva's Stargate Fan ... Stuff

Inconceivable!

Grand Tour Part Three

Chapter 9: The Ship of Fools

Location: France
Key Date: Thursday, 29th July, 1999

“Seven paintings in seven countries,” Drew commented. “That takes skill and access to some serious resources.”

The two men had packed their belongings along with Elaine’s, checking out of the Crown Regent before taking her to the airport. Now they sat in one of Heathrow’s many cafes, anonymous in the sea of people making their way through one of the world’s busiest airports.

“Lucky for us we have access to even more serious resources,” Evan replied, eyes unfocussed as he thought strategies.

“I take it you’re done being ‘Mr’ Lorne?” Drew asked.

“For now,” Lorne agreed casually. “I need to make a couple of calls, ask for a few favours. While I’m doing that you can get us tickets to Paris.”

“You think they’ll follow?” the other man frowned, eyes narrowed.

“I think they’re playing with me,” Evan replied. “I think they’ve spent so many years being untouchable they honestly don’t think anyone can take them down. So yeah, I think they’ll follow us. Particularly after the message I left on Lefèvre’s phone last night telling him I was on the way to Paris.”

“You think he’s involved?” Drew’s brows rose sharply at what it seemed Evan was suggesting.

“Not sure,” Lorne admitted. “All I know is something’s not right with him. He just upped and disappeared last night Drew ... essentially left us in the lurch even though he professed to need me to catch his crooks. That just doesn’t make sense. Maybe the thieves have surveillance on him just like he does on them. Maybe he’s in on it and our night at the Tate was just part of the set up. Either way I’m counting on him following us and whoever’s behind this following him.”

“Okay ... make your calls,” Drew agreed. “I’ll go get our tickets.”

Evan nodded, watching Drew walk away and then pulling out his phone. He’d considered a number of people he could ask for help before deciding on his first choice ... someone he respected who'd hopefully have connections in France they could use.

Dialling the number Lorne waited, listening to the phone ringing half a world away. “Major Baker,” he greeted his old commanding officer respectfully when the phone was answered. He'd always seen the older man as a kind of mentor and had kept in touch since he'd left Canada. “It's Evan Lorne here.”

“Evan,” Baker replied, his tone welcoming and friendly. “How have you been son?” he didn’t add the words ‘since the funeral’ but both men heard them anyway.

“I’m okay Sir,” Evan dismissed lightly.

Baker knew him well enough to be able to read between those lines. “And how’s that leave working out for you?” he asked lightly.

It was a small world for a fighter pilot so Evan wasn’t surprised Major Baker knew he’d taken off. “That’s what I’m calling about,” Lorne admitted. “I’ve kind of gotten myself into a bit of a situation over here Sir. I was hoping you’d be able to help me sort it out.”

“What can I do for you Evan?” Baker immediately replied.

“If you could pave the way with Interpol’s National Central Bureau in Paris Sir – vouch for me – that would go a long way to resolving things,” Evan explained without going into too much detail over the phone.

“Consider it done,” the Major promised. “Is that all you need?”

“Ah ... not exactly,” Evan hesitated before continuing. “I need access to some ... surveillance equipment ... and some authorised weapons for myself and Andrew Rider. Is there anyone in Paris you can put me in touch with Sir?”

“Surveillance equipment,” Baker repeated slowly. “What sort of trouble have you gotten yourself into Evan?”

“The kind that requires the threat of force ... and indisputable evidence,” Lorne summarised grimly.

“Right,” Major Baker paused for a moment, thinking. “I know some people in the French military,” he offered. “I’ll get in touch and see what they can do for you. Give me your number so I can get back to you with the details.”

Evan rattled off the mobile number quickly. “Thank you for all of this Sir,” he said gratefully.

“You’re level headed Lorne,” Baker replied. “I trust you not to smear the good name of either of our country’s military with whatever you’ve got planned over there.”

“I’ll try my best not to do that Sir,” Evan promised.

“Leave it with me then,” Baker concluded.

Lorne thanked him again and then disconnected the call, thinking hard before dialling another number, this one from a business card he’d been carrying around for a few weeks.

“Mr Green,” he began when the call was answered. “You might not remember me ... its Evan Lorne here. We met at the Budapest National Gallery about a month ago.”

“Of course ... Evan,” Brian Green replied. “Did you finally make it to England?”

“Ah ... not exactly,” Evan admitted. “Listen, this is probably a long shot and I hate to even use a chance meeting like this but I was wondering if you had any connections at the Louvre. I really need to speak to one of the curators there and it’s too urgent to go down the road of making an appointment. Plus I need some kind of reference otherwise there’s little chance they’ll accept a meeting request from me.”

“I have met with one of the curators, Monsieur Perrie, on many occasions,” Green admitted. “If I may ask, what is this about?”

“Just something relating to one of their paintings I overheard in the last gallery I visited,” Lorne felt guilty for lying but there was no other way – he didn’t want to involve anyone else more than he had to. “I wanted to pass on the information but there’s no guarantee it’ll reach the right ears unless I speak to one of the curators personally.”

Green thought for a moment, the silence lengthening as Evan began to think he’d be getting a No response. “Very well,” Brian finally agreed. “I will call Perrie and request he see you with all possible haste. When will you be in Paris?”

“Within the next couple of hours,” Evan revealed. “Give him this number,” he again rattled off the now familiar digits, “and tell him to call me any time, no notice beyond travel time required.”

“I’ll do that,” Green acknowledged.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this Brian,” Evan said gratefully.

“Anything that helps a fellow gallery, even one as large as the Louvre, is thanks enough,” Brian replied. “I will call you back if there are difficulties. Otherwise you can expect a call from Monsieur Perrie shortly.

“Thank you,” Evan replied before saying goodbye and hanging up.

He had the basics for his plan in play. Now all he had to do was draw all the pieces together and lay them out in the required spots. Easy.

oOo

It was interesting that Lorne would seek to trap a thief with the Louvre as his backdrop. Just two years before the French Prime Minister had initiated the Mattéoli Commission to investigate cultural property seized during World War II by the Nazi’s and under Napoleon I. While many pieces were returned to their owners the museum continued to hold almost 700 pieces of claimed artwork, despite requests from the source nations for their return. Their motives in protecting rare and valuable works were perhaps admirable but the situation was one of ongoing arbitration by UNESCO.

Evan and Drew walked from Charles de Gaul airport into the middle of an overcast French day, packs over their shoulders and determined expressions on their faces. Since Elaine’s accident the light hearted Drew Lorne was used to had disappeared, leaving behind a man grimly determined to see the end of the people behind it. And that suited Evan just fine.

“Where to first?” Drew asked.

“I guess we go check out the Louvre,’ Evan decided. “Can’t do much else until I get a couple of calls back.”

“Let’s go then,” Drew nodded to the map Lorne carried. “Got a route planned out?”

“Of course,” Lorne agreed with a faint smirk. “This isn’t one we can walk to though ... unless you’re up for a five hour hike. We’ll have to take a taxi.”

Glancing around, the other man quickly spotted the taxi queue and moved to join the back of the line. “I wonder how Elaine’s doing?” he muttered.

“Living it up in first class as we speak,” Evan replied, amazed at how quickly he’d moved from being reluctant to see the relationship between his sister and friend to actively reassuring Drew that Elaine was okay. “It’s a long flight ... plenty of time for her to get some rest. My Mom will meet her plane and take Lainee home,” he reminded Drew, having spoken to his mother during the early hours of the morning at the hospital after he’d seen that Elaine would be okay. Grace Lorne hadn’t asked questions ... just listened as Evan had summarised what had happened since he’d last spoken to her. She hadn’t judged either for which Evan was more than grateful, just agreed that he should send Elaine home to recover with her.

Drew looked as reassured as he was going to get, stepping up to the vacant taxi that pulled up when it was their turn and getting in the back, Evan following him closely.

“The Musée du Louvre,” Evan instructed, sitting back and turning his eyes towards the windows. It was almost an hour later that the taxi turned on to Rue de Rivoli and from there on to Rue de l’Amiral de Coligny. Where the streets prior had been narrow and close with buildings rising on either side, as they got closer to the museum the wide sidewalks made the roads seem wide and open.

And then suddenly they were there, the Louvre Palace stretching to either direction as the taxi pulled over outside. Evan paid quickly, following Drew out of the back, eyes fixed on the most visited museum in Europe.

The entirety of the museum formed an upside down ‘U’, with three separate wings taking up respective sides and the world famous pyramid in the middle. On the far side of the building was the right bank of the river Seine. It was old and impressive on a grand scale. To the left was the wing Evan was most interested in ... the Richelieu Wing was home to a large collection of French, German and Dutch paintings, including the one he would have made his must see piece.

Not the Mona Lisa, although he had every intention of visiting her once he’d finished with Lefèvre and the art thieves. No, his choice was a simple painting entitled Grace, an oil on canvas painted by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in 1740. But there’d be time for that later ... for now he just wanted to get a general feel for the layout and administration.

“You really think someone could take a painting from here?” Drew spoke under his breath as they went through the process of checking in their bags and gaining entrance.

“The Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911 by an employee who kept it for two years before he was caught,” Evan replied. “Admittedly they’ve probably stepped up security a bit since then but I think the past couple of months prove there’s no such thing as an impossible theft.”

Drew went to answer when Evan held up a hand, reaching into a pocket and pulling out his silently ringing mobile.

“Evan Lorne,” he answered with his name, listening intently for a few moments before nodding. “Thank you Sir. I owe you at least a forty for this,” he listened again and then laughed. “I’ll try Sir,” he promised before hanging up.

“Well?” Drew looked at him expectantly.

“Got the equipment I need,” Evan revealed, pulling out his map of Paris and a pen and searching it intently. “We just have to get to Taverny Air Base in the Val d'Oise,” he said, circling a location. “It’s about 12 miles north of here. Before we do that though I need one of my other favours to come through. And I need to go speak to a contact from Interpol.”

“Sounds like you’re gonna be a busy boy,” Drew retorted. “You want to fill me in on what you’ve got planned or just stick with the cryptic crap?”

“Once I have all the pieces lined up I’ll fill you in,” Evan promised.

Drew frowned but didn’t insist on further information right there and then. The two men walked the ground floor of each wing of the museum before stopping in at the bookshop where Evan purchased a number of books on the museum itself. He also picked up brochures detailing the current activities of the museum, including planned shows they were assisting with.

“Floor plans and details on all the collections,” he explained to Drew. “Should be something in there about the works they don’t display too. That’s about all I can do here for now. Time to visit Interpol.”

oOo

Evan went to Interpol by himself, sending Drew out to find them somewhere to stay. Although strictly speaking he wasn’t going to Interpol as such. Their headquarters were located in Lyon, almost 300 miles away. Instead he was going to the Paris National Central Bureau, staffed mostly by French law enforcement officers. The contact Major Baker had arranged for him was located there and with any luck would both believe Lorne’s story and be willing to act on the matter. He knew it was a long shot and had another plan in mind in the likelihood they had to go it alone.

Walking up to the main desk, Evan smiled at the woman sitting behind the counter. “Captain Evan Lorne,” he introduced himself. “I’m here to see Monsieur Durand.”

“He’s expecting you Captain,” the woman replied. “Please have a seat while I call him.”

Nodding Evan didn’t sit, standing instead near the windows and looking out at the street.

“Captain Lorne?” Evan turned to see a short Frenchman dressed in a pin striped suit complete with red satin tie.

“Yes ... Monsieur Durand?” Evan stepped forward, holding out a hand.

“I am Durand,” he shook Lorne’s hand, and then motioned for him to walk with him. “I must admit I was surprised to get a call from the American military asking that I meet with you,” he spoke, leading Evan through a set of doors and into an open area that included a number of desks all occupied. They walked through the gaps between to an office at the back, Durand waving a hand at a chair in front of his desk, inviting Evan to take a seat. “Now ... what can Interpol help you with Captain,” he asked as he sat down.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” Lorne began. “I had some involvement with one of your colleagues in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago and then again in London earlier this week ... about the theft of several art works from galleries across Europe.” Evan continued the story, trying as best he could with as few words as possible to summarise the situation as he knew it. “I was hoping to get your cooperation in taking a more direct approach,” he finally concluded.

Durand had listened silently as Lorne spoke, nodding here and there. Now he frowned, looking at Evan intently. “You say you assisted one of our agents?” he broached.

“Yes,” Lorne reached into his pocket, taking out Lefèvre’s business card. “Anton Lefèvre,” he said, handing it to the other man.

Durand took the card, looking at it closely, eyes narrowed.

“Is there a problem?” Evan asked, getting that bad feeling again.

“You could say that,” Durand sighed, placing the card carefully on the desk in front of him. “Monsieur Lefèvre is no longer an employee of Interpol, and in fact has not been so for more than a year.”

“Damn,” Evan muttered. “I knew there was something off about him but I didn’t question it because he appeared to have the full cooperation of the authorities in Amsterdam.”

“Did you see his credentials?” Durand asked curiously.

“Ah ....,” Evan thought for a moment. “Now that you mention it, no I didn’t. My first meeting with him was through the Amsterdam police. Surely he’d have shown ID to them.”

“Indeed,” Durand agreed. “If I recall correctly, it was Lefèvre’s obsession with apprehending a so called ‘ring’ of art thieves that led to his removal from Interpol. He continued to insist on the guilt of parties proper investigation had cleared, even after the real culprits were apprehended and convicted years before. It has been some time now since events of a like nature have taken place ... I had hoped that Monsieur Lefèvre had moved on but clearly that is not the case.”

“He did mention suspects he was sure were behind this,” Evan revealed. “But he never said anything about the crimes already being solved.”

It was a blow; there was no getting around that. Anton had misled Lorne, badly, and if he could get his hands on the other man he’d make sure to express his extreme ... displeasure. But regardless, the thefts that had taken place during Evan’s trip were a reality ... and something still had to be done about those.

“That doesn’t explain the latest round of thefts,” Evan pointed out respectfully. “Seven works in seven countries so far - that can't be just a coincidence."

“This is news to us Captain Lorne," Durand admitted with a sigh. "We rely on participating countries to provide us with information ... too often single incidents such as the ones you describe are not reported. That is if these incidents even occured."

"What, you think Lefèvre was lying to me about that too?" Lorne frowned, thinking back to what he knew from first hand experience. "Even if that's the case it still leaves two thefts I know for sure occurred - Amsterdam and London. They could still be connected."

"Perhaps, but with no evidence to link them there is little law enforcement officials can do,” Durand replied. “I will have the matter followed up Captain. Rest assured, Monsieur Lefèvre will not be left to continue impersonating a member of this organisation.” He paused, before continuing. “As to the rest I am not sure what it is you wish us to do. Interpol does not run operations directly ... we assist our participating countries primarily with the provision of up to date information where international criminal activity is involved. We do not have the resources to do more than this ... and as you can see our information is only as good as our sources allow.”

“I see,” Lorne was disappointed but he’d known it was a long shot that he’d be able to just hand the whole mess over to someone else to fix. “Lefèvre mentioned case files as well as possible suspects. Would it be possible for me to get a look at them?”

Durand hesitated for a moment before coming to a decision. “We do not have hard copies here Captain, but electronic records are usually made of all cases overseen by our agency. I will ask one of my staff to assist you in accessing this information.”

“Thank you Monsieur,” Lorne said gratefully.

Durand led him out into the main work area. “Mademoiselle Girard, this is Captain Lorne from America.”

Evan nodded, listening as Durand instructed her to help him search for the information he needed. Thanking the man again, nodding at his reassurances that he would deal with Lefèvre, Lorne then sat down and began giving Miss Girard the details she’d need for the search.

Most of what came up was information Evan already knew from what Anton had told him - at least he hadn't lied about that. They’d been scrolling through dry reports, following the trail of Lefèvre while he’d still been an employee when something on the screen grabbed Lorne’s attention.

“Stop,” he said urgently. “Scroll back.”

He watched as photos were displayed in reverse order to how he’d just seen them. “There.”

Miss Girard halted the scrolling, glancing at Lorne curiously. “Is this one important?” she asked curiously.

“Yeah,” Evan’s eyes were pinned on the smiling images of Maria and Harry Luca. “Yeah it is.”

oOo

“I can’t believe this!” Evan was angrily pacing back and forth across the room Drew had checked them in to. It was early evening in what had turned out to be a very long day and he’d updated the other man on the latest ... that Lefèvre was in fact not a member of Interpol and that a nice couple he’d met back in Italy were apparently his prime suspects. “That whole time the Luca’s were collecting information about me so they could use me as their scapegoat. She was so nice, Drew. I never would have suspected her.”

“Suspected doesn’t mean guilty,” Drew pointed out.

“Maybe not, but it’s a little too coincidental to me that a couple I met on my first stop turn out to be ex-suspects in a string of past art thefts,” Evan replied darkly.

“So what’s Interpol gonna do about all this?” Drew asked curiously.

“About Lefèvre – they’ll pick him up if he’s stupid enough to turn up in their radar,” Lorne explained. “As for the rest of it, getting access to their files is the best we can expect. They’ll keep the local authorities informed and pass on any pertinent information as soon as it comes to light. The rest is up to the local authorities in the affected countries. He did say they could send someone to assist with coordination but I don’t think that’s gonna fix our immediate problem.”

“So we go to Taverny first thing tomorrow?” Drew took a seat at the small table, casually rifling through the books and pamphlets Lorne had dumped there when he’d arrived.

Lorne’s phone chose that moment to ring. Evan glanced at the number and then answered by giving his name.

“Monsieur Lorne,” the male voice at the other end replied. “My name is Gérard Perrie, curator, 16th Century paintings, at the Louvre.”

“Monsieur Perrie, thank you for calling me,” Lorne replied, attention immediately focussed on the call.

“Mr Green from the Green and Black Gallery in London called and mentioned you had information about a painting at the Louvre,” Perrie replied.

“In a manner of speaking,” Evan agreed. “Is it possible we could come to the museum and meet with you Monsieur?”

“You have sparked my curiosity Mr Lorne,” the curator admitted. “I can spare an hour tomorrow morning ... say 10 am?”

“We’ll be there,” Evan promised, thanking the man again before hanging up. “Okay, now we’re getting somewhere,” he told Drew.

“And where exactly would that be?” Drew asked pointedly.

“At the point where we can trap Lefèvre and the Luca’s into making a mistake,” Evan explained. Picking up one of the brochures he opened it and held it up for Drew to see. “Hieronymus Bosch ... 16th Century painter who was famous for painting triptychs – scenes in three parts. There’s one in particular – it doesn’t have a collective name – that was cut into several parts soon after it was painted. The National Gallery of Art in Washington owns one panel and is bringing the other two pieces together for the first time since it was first broken up. Yale University Gallery owns another piece and the Louvre the third – theirs is called The Ship of Fools. It’s been removed from display so they can ship it to the States ... which makes it a very attractive item for any self respecting art thief.”

“Why is that?” Drew was intrigued with both the emerging strategy he was starting to perceive as well as this other side to his friend – his openly knowledgeable ‘arty’ side.

“Because Bosch most often painted directly on wood,” Evan replied. “If you’re an art thief you want to take something easy to transport ... like a canvas that you can cut from the frame, roll up and hide in a post tube. That effectively puts a Bosch out of reach ... until now. This one will be packaged and ready for transport ... it’s practically irresistible.”

“This is all great Evan but there’s no way for us to know where these people – the Luca’s – are right now, or where they’re going to be next week,” Drew pointed out sceptically. “We could set this up and never know whether they were tempted to take the bait or they just never heard about it.”

“That’s why I was thinking I’d use this,” Evan held up a business card, the one Harry had pressed on him before he’d taken his leave.

Taking it, Drew read it and then looked back to Lorne immediately. “Let me get this straight ... you’ve been carrying this around for two months and you’re only telling me about it now?!”

“I’ve only known the Luca’s were involved for less than a day,” Evan pointed out. “Harry gave me that card after the one dinner but I was never tempted to use it ... to be honest I kind of forgot I even had it. Given what we know about them, what’re the chances that’s really their number anyway?”

“Okay, good point ...I guess we won’t know unless you call them,” Drew smiled suddenly. “Time to tap into that inner ‘Rookie Most Wanted’ ... how did Steph put it?” He thought for a moment. “Oh, that’s right. Because you’re just so darn nice.” He laughed at the expression of distaste on his friends face.

“Laugh it up buddy ... but remember one thing. I know plenty of stories you wouldn’t want me repeating around my sister.” It was Evan’s turn to tease and he took delight in the way the smile dropped right off Drew’s face.

“You wouldn’t do that,” Drew insisted.

“I might,” Evan countered, laughing again.

“Just make the call,” Drew shot back.

Right,” Evan quickly dialled the number, turning away and walking to the window as he waited for someone to answer.

Hello, Maria Luca.”

“Mrs Luca,” Evan said in a charming voice. “It’s Evan Lorne here. I’m not sure if you’d even remember me now – Italy, the Uffizi Gallery, at the beginning of June?”

Of course I remember you Evan,” Maria exclaimed, sounding genuinely pleased that he’d called. “Are you still travelling?

“I’m on the last leg before I have to return to work,” Evan replied. “I remember Harry saying the two of you would be travelling for a while ... it’s a shame we never bumped into each other again ... I hope you don’t mind me calling,” he paused, slipping into a faintly melancholy tone he hoped would have her feeling sympathetic ... if that was even something an international art thief could feel. “To be honest it’s a little ... lonely travelling by myself. I’ve had a few ... difficulties along the way too ... it’d be nice to be around people who actually know me instead of a room full of strangers.”

Oh you poor dear,” Maria exclaimed. “Harry and I are still on the road ... where are you now?

“Paris,” Evan said simply. “I’m going to spend a few days checking out the Louvre before I head back to the States.”

Paris,” Maria’s tone had an odd edge Evan only picked up because he’d been carefully looking for some kind of clue that she and her husband were really what Anton Lefèvre believed them to be. “Why, that’s wonderful Evan. Harry and I are on our way there right now.”

“Really?” Evan said with pretended surprise. “That’s great Mrs Luca.”

Maria, please,” she replied. “Well then ... why don’t you give me your number dear? I’ll call you just as soon as we have a free evening and we can have dinner. How does that sound?

“That sounds perfect ... Maria,” Evan smiled, quickly rattling off his mobile number.

You’ve been to the Louvre already?” Maria asked curiously.

“Just for a couple of hours,” Evan replied. “I couldn’t see the piece I came here for – it’s no longer on display. It’s disappointing but there’s still plenty of other works to admire.”

That’s a shame,” Maria said sympathetically. There was a pause and then, just as he’d been counting on, she couldn’t resist asking. “What was it you most wanted to see?

“The Ship of Fools,” Lorne put active disappointment into his voice, even as he grinned across at Drew who was listening with interest to Evan’s side of the conversation.

Oh, I know it!” Maria said excitedly. “Hieronymus Bosch ... part of a larger work. It really is a shame you couldn’t see it Evan – it’s a wonderful piece.

“I’ve seen pictures of course,” Lorne returned, “but I know now how little that really means.” He hesitated for a moment, and then spoke in a low tone. “You probably noticed when we had dinner that I didn’t talk about my work ... I guess you could say I’m going through a bit of a mid life crisis. Something happened at work and now ... well, now I feel a little like the people Bosch painted in The Ship of Fools ... wasting my life instead of spending it doing something useful.” It was all a lie of course but there were enough elements of truth to lend conviction and realism to his voice.

I wondered,” Maria’s tone was almost maternal now. “I said to Harry ‘that boy is grieving for someone’ ... you just seemed so sad. Are you feeling better now dear?

“I’m getting there,” Evan admitted, laughing weakly. “Sorry ... I shouldn’t be wasting your time with my problems.”

Don’t apologise,” Maria insisted. “We can talk more when we see you Evan. I’ll call you when we get to Paris.

“Thanks Maria,” Evan said before finishing up the call. “That’s one,” he said to Drew, pulling out another card and dialling again.

This time the call went straight to messaging. “Anton, its Evan Lorne here. Listen, I saw the news reports about what happened at the Tate and I just wanted to apologise for leaving you in the lurch that night. My sister’s fine now – on her way home in fact. Drew and I decided to move on to Paris ... see the Louvre before we head back to the States. There’s a Bosch I particularly want to see before they ship it to the States,” Evan chuckled. “You know me ... gotta have that one special piece to draw me to a particular gallery. Probably should be the Mona Lisa but everybody comes here to see her. Anyway, ... give me a call if you’re still looking for assistance with that little problem we talked about.”

Hanging up, he grinned. “And that’s two. Now we just have to hope Monsieur Perrie at the Louvre is willing to do more than just hear me out or this could all blow up in our faces.”

oOo

“He called me,” Maria Luca tried to keep her voice calm. Despite everything, despite how sincere Evan Lorne had seemed over the phone she was worried.

“And?” the man on the other end replied blandly.

“And I think that’s more than a coincidence!” Maria exclaimed.

“He’s suspicious, yes,” the man agreed. “But he is just one man ... and he knows nothing of value. If he called you it was simply to follow up a casual acquaintance ... after all Harry did give him your number.”

“How can you be sure of that?” she asked.

“Because he called me too.”

Chapter 10: Grace

Location: France
Key Date: Saturday, 31st July, 1999

At just before 10 am the next day Evan and Drew walked into the Louvre for the second time, asking at the desk where they might find Monsieur Gérard Perrie. Following the directions they were given they arrived at a closed door pronouncing the occupant inside to be the man they were looking for.

“Mr Lorne,” Perrie greeted them kindly, his french accent the cultured, educated kind. He was a small man, appearing almost delicate, with grey hair and a complexion that had Lorne placing him somewhere around 60 years of age.

“Monsieur Perrie ... thank you for meeting with us,” Evan stepped forward and shook the older man’s hand. “Please call me Evan, and this is my friend Andrew Rider.”

“Drew,” his friend replied, shaking Perrie’s hand as well.

“Please, have a seat gentlemen,” the curator waved a hand towards the corner of his well appointed office, set up with couches and a low table. Once everyone was seated comfortably, Perrie spoke again. “Now ... please ... tell me what you wished to see me about.”

“You would have heard about the robbery at the Tate a couple of days ago?” Evan questioned, getting a nod in return. “It’s one of a string of art thefts that have taken place across Europe since the beginning of June. I have good reason to believe they’re headed here next.”

“Our security measures are without equal,” Perrie smiled complacently. “We have no need to fear they will be successful here, if indeed you are correct that such a ring exists and we are their next target.”

“I bet the Tate Britain thought their security was up to scratch too,” Evan said bluntly. “I’ve been in contact with Interpol ... I’ve read the file on related incidents potentially spanning the past ten years. These people know what they’re doing and so far no one has been able to get even close to catching them.”

Lorne had decided sometime during the night to present their case as the tail end of something much larger ... because he still wasn’t convinced that wasn’t the case, despite what Monsieur Durand had told him, and because it was probably their best shot at getting the cooperation of the Louvre.

“Why is it that you take such an interest in this?” Perrie asked curiously.

“Because they set me up to take the fall for their crimes,” Evan admitted, his expression grim. “I spent a night in jail in Amsterdam before the authorities finally worked out I had nothing to do with it. They’re following me, using my movements, the galleries I visit to both choose their next target and cast suspicion elsewhere.”

“Shouldn’t you report this to the police then Mr Lorne?” Perrie suddenly seemed a little less friendly than he had before.

“I could do that,” Evan agreed. “But if history is anything to go by that’ll just result in them going underground again ... only to restart their activities in the future with a new scapegoat. And that doesn’t sit well with me Monsieur Perrie.”

“What would you have me do?” the curator gave nothing away about his willingness to help.

“Not a great deal,” Evan explained. “Every theft since June has been of a work not on display, I’m guessing because they’re not held under as tight security as those open to the public. You have a very attractive Bosch about to be shipped to America.”

“Ah yes, the Ship of Fools,” Perrie nodded. “It is due to be shipped out next week in fact.”

“All I’m asking is that you make that a little more public than it already is, something in the media that’ll make it seem vulnerable and therefore the easiest target in the entire museum,” Evan suggested. “My friend and I have access to surveillance equipment that’s pretty much second to none ... you let us set up around the Bosch on top of the security you already run.”

“It is not museum policy to allow outsiders inside the non public areas,” the curator shook his head.

“What Evan didn’t say when he introduced us is that we’re both officers in our countries air forces,” Drew spoke up for the first time. Reaching into a pocket he pulled out his air force credentials, handing them over easily. Evan saw the change in the curator’s demeanour – he didn’t immediately agree to hand them the keys to the Louvre but something about his posture said he was more open to listening.

Getting out his own air force ID, Lorne waited for Perrie to give Drew his back and then offered it to the older man. “Our organisations can vouch for us Monsieur Perrie,” he met the older man’s eyes as he continued. “You can trust us.”

Perrie checked Evan’s ID intently, looking up, his eyes moving from Lorne to Drew and then back again, his expression thoughtful.

“We’ll work with your security teams and you can personally check all the steps before we take them,” Evan proposed. “It’s a win win for your collection. If nothing happens then you have a piece of art that’s enjoyed higher than normal protection before its journey to the US. And if the thieves do target it, if they manage to get close, then with all the extra unexpected measures, the Bosch will remain safe and we’ll get the evidence we need to stop them for good.”

“Very well,” Perrie agreed abruptly. “But you will follow the orders of my head of security. And if there is any doubt that the Bosch can be protected you will quit your activities immediately.”

“Agreed,” Evan said instantly, his words echoed by Drew.

Nodding, the curator stood and moved to his desk, picking up the phone and pressing a button. “Have Mr Parker come to my office,” he requested. Hanging up he added, “my head of security. You can discuss your specific plans with him.”

“Thank you,” Evan stood, holding out a hand and shaking Perrie’s gratefully.

oOo

After meeting with Trent Parker, an ex officer of the British army who proved the adage that servicemen stuck together, no matter what country they'd served, Lorne was ready to make the trip to Taverny air base to pick up what they’d need. The fact that he already had connections to the French military, that they were in fact already helping him had carried weight with Perrie and with Parker. Once they’d known that, the last barriers to true cooperation were lifted and strategies devised.

“This could all be for nothing you know,” Drew couldn’t help but point out as he sat in the passenger seat of a car the Louvre had provided for them. “One vague phone call to a person who might not even be involved isn’t a lot to count on.”

“I know,” Lorne agreed, “but I’ve got a feeling about this Drew ... I don't know why but I'm sure this is the way to go.”

“All right,” Drew nodded. He still had doubts but he trusted Evan.

It took a while to leave the streets of Paris behind but when they turned onto the A115 everything sped up until fifteen minutes later they exited the freeway and drove the short distance to the Air Base.

Showing his ID at the check point, Lorne was waved through. He parked in the visitor area, the two friends walking to the information desk to sign in. The military in France was just as efficient as anywhere else ... in short order they’d been introduced to a Major Picard who listened as Evan described his requirements and then without even blinking agreed to loan them everything they needed.

An hour later they were back in the car and heading back to Paris.

“That went well,” Drew commented.

“That’s the military for you,” Lorne replied. “Efficiency in the face of anything you can throw at it.”

“You sound a little bitter there,” Drew turned to look at Evan. “You know Elaine wanted me to talk to you about that, right?”

“Yeah, I know – she’s worried about me,” Evan acknowledged. He’d called Elaine the previous evening and been reassured both by her own manner and the opinion of his Mom that she really was okay. He had no doubt that Drew had also spoken to his sister since she’d arrived back on U.S. soil ... not that he wanted to know the details.

“Does she need to be?” Drew asked simply.

Evan said nothing, fixing his eyes to the road ahead.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Drew looked back to the road too before shifting slightly in his seat, making it clear he wasn’t letting it drop. “What’s got you most annoyed – that John got killed doing Mickey Mouse protection duty or that they expected you to just report back like nothing happened?”

Enough,” Evan’s tone warned Drew not to push him but Drew just ignored it.

“Because if it’s the second I think you’ve got it backwards,” he said. “They don’t expect you to act like nothing happened Evan. You do that to yourself because you’re always so bloody determined not to let your emotions show. The structure, the whole set up ... it’s there to support you just as much as it is to guide what you should be doing. If you let it.”

Lorne shot Drew a glance and then resolutely turned his attention back to driving.

“See, you’re not saying anything because you know I’m right,” Drew announced. He let it go for a few minutes before speaking again. “So, does this mean you’re leaving the air force? Going to try your hand at the life of a struggling artist?”

“No!” Evan’s response was immediate and instinctive.

“I didn’t think so,” Drew smiled smugly. “I just wanted to see how far deluding yourself had gone.”

“You’re a real genius ... Crater,” Lorne shook his head, but then honestly and friendship compelled him to speak up. “Okay, I admit that it bothered me how quickly everything moved past John’s death. Maybe that’s because my guys didn’t know John ... didn’t serve with him. And maybe I lost a little faith in the whole pilot deal for a while there – that plane malfunctioned and a good man died because of it." Evan shot Drew a quick look before refocussing on the road. "Isn't it ... wrong to be so completely enarmoured of something that caused the death of a friend?"

"No it's not wrong!" Drew retorted. "It was an accident Evan! I know why that bothers you ... you still haven't learned that it doesn't matter how much responsibility you personally take - sometimes bad shit happens. There's nothing you could have done to change it."

"Doesn't mean I have to like it," Evan muttered, frowning even though he knew Drew was right. But he knew himself too - and he couldn't see changing something that had been a part of his nature maybe even before his fathers death. Shaking his head he continued. "I’m not questioning whether I should be in the military Drew – not anymore. I just wonder whether I’ve got the balance right.”

“I’m not sure you can ever get it completely right,” Drew said thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s about being flexible ... changing the balance to make room for other things coming into your life.”

“Like you and my sister?” Evan asked seriously, as close as he’d get to asking the other man his ‘intentions’.

“Hell yes,” Drew grinned. “The only down side to that is that she’s related to you.”

“You will pay for that,” Lorne promised, keeping his expression stern even though he appreciated the shift back to the light hearted.

“You can’t hurt me ... not without Elaine hurting you back,” Drew said smugly.

“Oh, I’m a little more creative than that,” Evan said lightly, “and after almost twenty six years of study I know how to get around my sister.”

Drew’s smug look fell away, leaving Evan laughing. Maybe having Drew around a little more wouldn’t be so bad after all.

oOo

Evan Lorne wasn’t an impatient man ... he knew how to hold position, how to wait for something to happen. That’s why it surprised him how jumpy and uptight he felt as they set up their equipment at the Louvre, like he had an overload of adrenalin and nowhere to direct it.

Even with all the work they had to do setting up the surveillance equipment where the Bosch was being stored, he still felt the need to be doing something ... more. Truth be known he was sick of the entire business and just wanted it to be over. Instead of spending the past two months getting to know himself again he’d spent them chasing a bunch of common thieves ... deceptively nice people who'd deceived him which only made him angrier.

Security at the Louvre was good ... along with the standard security cameras and rosters of guards walking the floors day and night, they used a Minicom system. Each painting using the system had a sending unit attached behind the canvas with the holding device a part of the mechanism used to mount the picture to the wall. Each device had a unique coded message that was continually sent to the central control room – changes in orientation, the presence of vibration and even sudden changes in light were all detected. Of course if you knew what system they were using you could devise a countermeasure which was partly why museum security was such a closely guarded secret.

Along with the individual units the museum also had barricade alarms for the most important works, like the Mona Lisa. If the alarm went off the room would shut down immediately, trapping both thief and artwork inside. The big name items were rarely the ones targeted by thieves though. If you managed to steal the Mona Lisa who would you sell it to? It was so well known you’d never be able to show it to anyone, which kind of defeated the purpose of having it. That’s why the works chosen by these thieves were more obscure – just famous enough to be worth something but not recognisable enough to draw undue attention.

The security at the Louvre was good ... but what Evan and Drew had access to was a hell of a lot better. Electro-optical surveillance systems built for monitoring in any range of lighting conditions, including night time vision, with the ability to distinguish objects during all types of adverse weather conditions, and with remote sensing capabilities. Lorne acted in a commanding role, directing Trent Parker and his team on the placement and installation of each component, being guided himself by Trent’s knowledge of the museum and the most likely points of entry.

The Luca’s might have ways to take out standard surveillance but they wouldn’t know the rest of it was there. The room where the Bosch was being stored, already packed for transport, was paid special attention. They installed covert video covering all directions, a tracker to the painting itself, and a portable surveillance unit to the inside of the transport box. If the item was stolen, the minute the thieves opened it to admire their new masterpiece their image would be captured and sent back to the control systems the team installed beside the Louvre’s already existing systems.

Evan also took the added precaution of rigging himself up for surveillance too, both video and audio disguised in a very bond like manner so that it wouldn’t be detected. All set, with Louvre security running their usual sweeps, the only thing Lorne and Drew could do was wait.

oOo

Nothing happened the first night ... Evan and Drew only retired back to their hotel when the museum opened for business on the assurances of Trent Parker that everything would be left running, just in case the thieves broke form and attempted to steal in broad daylight. The Luca's did turn up as guests of the museum though, giving every appearance of being tourists as they walked through many of the galleries, presumably 'casing the joint'. The urge to confront them would have been hard to resist so it was lucky Lorne wasn't there when the theiving couple visited. They needed evidence ... irrefutable, caught in the act evidence ... which meant leaving Harry and Maria to do whatever it was they did to prepare for crime. Maria didn't call Lorne for that dinner ... not that he was surprised since he hadn't really expected her to.

Evan was still feeling punchy and keen for action when they arrived for their second night of surveillance, too much so to feel the tiredness he should have after so little sleep the previous 48 hours.

He’d settled in for the long haul, eyes fixed on the screens in a semi unfocussed kind of way when he realised something was finally happening. “We’ve got something,” he got on the radio to report to Parker. “South East corner, sector two.” Everything seemed to pause as they waited ... and then the standard Louvre systems flickered and reset – clearly running off video given they no longer matched what was being shown by the more sophisticated military systems. “They’ve compromised your system,” Lorne announced grimly.

“Acknowledged,” Parker replied in a low voice.

“Hold position,” Evan ordered. The electro-optical video feed was like watching the museum through a green, brightly lit filter that made everything stand out strangely. He was amazed at how quickly the two figures revealed amidst the green got to the storage room used for 16th century paintings. Clearly they'd known exactly where to head. Getting in the door was a non event, a simple matter of two thin pieces of metal and a basic knowledge of how locks worked. Evan could have picked that one himself with the same tools.

“They’re in,” he told Parker. “I’m moving to intercept.” Turning to Drew as he stood, Lorne checked his gun, a 9mm Beretta, and then moved towards the door. “Keep an eye on them,” he said. “Let me know if there’s anything I need to be worrying about.”

“And what are you going to do?” Drew asked worriedly.

“Nothing much,” Evan dismissed. “Just have a little chat with our friends down there before I throw them to Parker and his men.”

“Be careful,” Drew cautioned. “They may look like a middle aged, mild mannered couple but you don’t avoid getting caught across seven countries without having something up your sleeve.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lorne promised.

Keeping close to the wall, Evan made his way stealthily down the stairs, around a corner and then towards the end of a long corridor. The door of the storage room was slightly ajar and he could hear faint movements from within. “You’re good to go,” Drew’s voice in his ear was all business.

Holding up a thumb to the hidden camera they’d installed over the entrance the day before, Evan slowly pushed the door open. The darkness inside had him pausing for a moment to get his bearings ... as he did he caught sight of lines of torchlight hitting the walls and ceilings. Proceeding cautiously, Lorne manoeuvred around the tables and shelves stacked with art ready for transport without being detected.

“Now,” he whispered into the radio unit attached to his collar when he was only a few steps away.

Instantly the lights came on in the room. He was affected a little, his eyes not having enough time to really adjust to the darkness. Maria and Harry Luca on the other hand were very disoriented, stumbling as they experienced a moment of blindness. Harry was the first to recover, clearing his eyes to see Evan standing there, gun pointed directly at him. He made to move towards the nearest table.

“I wouldn’t,” Lorne warned, his tone quiet but deadly.

“Mr Lorne?” Harry was genuinely surprised to see him standing there.

Evan?” Maria said a moment later, her eyes adjusted to the brighter light. “What ...?” she trailed off, shooting a fearful look at her husband.

“What am I doing here?” Lorne suggested. When they both nodded he chuckled grimly. “I think that’s pretty self evident. I’m here to catch you in the act ... looks like I did just that, doesn’t it?”

“How?” Harry grabbed Maria’s hand, squeezing it reassuringly as he focussed intently on Evan.

“Well, see I neglected to tell you what it is I do for a living,” Lorne was happy to fill them in on the details ... get them to the point where he could ask his own questions. “I’m not Mister Lorne ... I’m Captain Lorne ... United States air force. I’ve got friends high enough up the ranks to get access to some exclusive equipment you wouldn’t know about.”

“You set us up,” Harry concluded.

“Seemed only fair after you did the same to me,” Lorne shot back, his voice coldly angry. “Did you know they arrested me in Amsterdam?”

“Now Evan, we knew they wouldn’t hold you for more than 24 hours,” Maria explained pleadingly. “It was just to give us the time we needed to make our escape after our ... visits.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Evan retorted. “I’ve had an ex Interpol agent tailing me across Europe – your fault as well.”

“Anton Lefèvre,” Harry acknowledged.

“You know him,” Evan commented grimly.

“He’s been our nemesis for years,” Harry admitted. “In part he is the one responsible for your involvement. We needed to renew our activities but Lefèvre was forever circling like a buzzard ... we needed to create another point of interest.”

“Is that why you arranged for my sister’s accident?” Lorne’s voice dropped low, his eyes dark and threatening. “Another point of interest?”

What?” Maria looked at Harry worriedly, giving every appearance of being genuinely surprised. “We didn’t arrange any such thing Evan ... you must believe us. Harry and I would never hurt anyone ... not deliberately.”

Watch out!” Drew’s warning echoed in his ear, too late.

Evan turned but before he could get a look the figures raised arm swung down towards his head and it was lights out Lorne.

oOo

Coming to a few minutes later with a groan Evan opened his eyes, closing them again with another groan. “You!” he exclaimed.

“Yes,” Brian Green said complacently, holding Lorne’s own borrowed weapon in a way that suggested he was more than capable of using it effectively. “Every good art thief needs an equally good conduit to liquidate their spoils.” Harry and Maria stood close to each other to one side of the door, watching the proceeding with identical looks of fear and confusion.

“You’re their ‘fence’?” Evan couldn’t believe it ... had the whole world been turned upside down, or had he become way too trusting?

“It’s a little crude but essentially correct,” Green agreed. “I also encourage the Luca’s to turn their attention to specific items ... when I have a buyer interested.”

“Well you should know that this room and the corridor outside are under military surveillance,” Lorne warned, putting a hand to the back of his head and wincing both at the pain and the covering of blood he discovered on lowering it. His head was throbbing in an unpleasant, make you sick to your stomach kind of way that had him not as sharply focussed as he could be.

“I am well aware of your pathetic attempts to catch me Captain Lorne ... another advantage of being in the business,” Green chuckled mockingly. “Gérard Perrie is a trusting fool who freely revealed your reason for being here along with everything you’ve done since you met with him. It’s made getting into each gallery much easier too – I visit, meet with the curators, discuss works for my Gallery. And along the way I collect information about their security measures and the locations of works that are most vulnerable to ... liberation. Maria and Harry then act to remove them ... it’s been a successful strategy for ten years.” He waved a sweeping hand to his accomplices. “Who would suspect a middle aged couple in love? You didn’t, did you Evan?”

“Why me?” Lorne ignored the taunting, intent on keeping them talking while Drew hopefully organised a way to get the bad guys without getting Evan shot in the process.

“You were single, travelling alone,” Harry was the one to explain their choice. “After talking to you we realised you’d go to all the galleries we would also be visiting. It was nothing personal ... just the right set of circumstances to meet our requirements.”

“When I saw your drawings I realised we could use that to further implicate you,” Brain retook the explaining. “Detailed layouts of the museums, accurately featuring the outsides ... it all just fell into our hands.” He smiled, his expression smug. “The card I gave you contains a tracking dot small and powerful enough to send out a basic signal for a few months – won’t be on the market for years yet but I know some very useful people. I’ve known precisely where you are every minute since we met in Budapest.”

Evan caught sight of movement at the doors but gave no outward side. Inside his adrenalin resurged, clearing his head.

“You’re just a regular Einstein aren’t you,” he commented. “Not to mention arrogant. You knew I was trying to set you up and yet you still arranged for Maria and Harry to steal the painting I offered up as bait.” Lorne shook his head. “And to think - I wouldn’t have even known to suspect the Luca's if not for Anton Lefèvre.”

“That man annoys to the point of torture,” Green said bitterly. “I gave him other suspects ... Interpol was convinced and still he persisted. Even after he was sacked he continued to chase us.”

“Yeah, I’d be a little pissed at being unfairly dismissed – you kinda brought it on yourself,” Evan pointed out. “Just like you brought this on yourselves.” He hadn’t completed the sentence when the door burst open, drawing Brian’s attention from Lorne for a moment.

That was all he needed. His right hand shot out rapidly, knocking the gun from Green’s hand. Lorne followed that up with a fist to the gut, standing back and watching dispassionately as Brian crumpled with a breathless wheeze, hands clutching his stomach.

He recovered quickly, lunging at Evan’s legs and taking them both to the floor. Rather than scramble up as Brian probably expected, Lorne launched himself across Brian’s chest, pinning him to the floor. Slamming a fist to the other mans check, he grinned darkly. “That’s for my sister,” he said grimly - a cliche but true nevertheless - following that up with another punch to the other check and the words “and that’s for ruining my holiday!”

Brian took the hits with more ease than Evan was expecting, rearing up suddenly and head butting Lorne under the chin. He fell backwards, rolling to stand up just in time to receive an elbow in the back.

That’s it!” he thought, surging up and pummelling Green with repeated hits to the torso. Brian tried to block but Evan was too fast, clearly done with polite conversation. Lorne threw in a few kicks as well, finally ending it with a well placed elbow to the jaw that saw Brian’s eyes roll back in his head before he hit the ground hard and stayed down.

While Evan had been fighting Drew, Trent Parker and a contingent of security personnel had descended on the room, quickly apprehending the Luca’s who didn’t resist.

Breathing hard, Lorne staggered as he straightened, putting a hand to his ribs.

“You okay?” Drew asked lightly.

“Yeah,” Evan nodded before looking at Maria and Harry.

“We really are sorry Evan,” Maria said remorsefully. “We never meant for anyone to get hurt.”

“You might not have meant it but that’s what happens when you start messing around with serious criminals like that guy,” Lorne pointed out sharply. “You’re damned lucky no one else has been hurt over the years ... at least not physically. You cost a man his career and a bit of his sanity,” he said, referring to Anton, "not to mention what you've done to the innocent people doing time for your crimes."

“We will take them into custody now,” Trent Parker announced after neither said anything in their own defence.

Nodding, Evan stepped aside, watching dispassionately as all three were taken away and the room was cleared.

“Feel better now?” Drew asked.

“Hell yes,” Evan replied with a smile.

oOo

Of course it wasn’t over there. Lorne and Drew had to make statements, fill in forms, and make themselves available for repeated recounting of the entire ordeal. The police insisted on having Evan checked at a local medical centre – apart from some minor bruising, already colouring his jaw with blues and yellows, he was pronounced fine.

Once all the official paperwork was done they had to make themselves available for expressions of gratitude – from the Louvre, and Gérard Perrie and Trent Parker; from Monsieur Durand at Interpol; and from the French police who were more than a little happy to be the ones taking charge of the capture of previously elusive criminals.

If that wasn’t enough Evan and Drew also had to remove all the equipment they’d installed at the Louvre and return it to Taverny. Eventually though the French police announced that they could take it from there, the clear chain of events and the indisputable evidence from the Louvre enough to ensure all three culprits would see the end they deserved without Evan having to stick around for trials. They also promised to re-examine all cases previously solved that were now suspected of being connected to the Luca’s ... anyone who had been set up, who’d been falsely convicted would get the full support and compensation from the governments concerned.

Even though he knew they were guilty - big time guilty - Lorne felt a little bad for the Luca’s. Despite their years of blatant thievery they'd lacked the true criminal menace of Brian Green and seemed to be more scared of him than friendly. Evan's police reports reflected that though, which might result in them getting a lesser sentence.

With Drew booked on the next flight to LA - not exactly on the way ‘home’ for him but Evan refrained from commenting - Lorne was almost ready to call it quits on France. There were a couple of things he still wanted to do though, the first being a phone call where he left a simple message.

Anton, its Captain Lorne. I hope you’re getting these messages because I have news I’m sure you’ll be more than a little interested in. With the help of Louvre security Drew and I captured Maria and Harry Luca last night, in the act of stealing The Ship of Fools. Them and their fence, Brian Green of the Green and Black Gallery in London. I’ll let you work out the implications of that. Anyway, they’re in custody in Paris and will stand trial for multiple counts of burglary and theft ... so you might want to dust off those old files and get yourself over here. Drew’s heading home tomorrow morning – after which I’ll be going on to The Prado. You weren’t right to put my sister in danger like that ... but you were right about who the real thieves were – up to a point.

oOo

All that remained as the day shifted into late afternoon was for Lorne to return to the Louvre. Events had progressed so rapidly he hadn’t been able to visit the museum for its intended purpose. He heading straight for the Mona Lisa, moving on to the other major masterpieces, and then finishing just before closing time at Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s Grace.

It was a tender scene ... a mother teaching her children to recite a prayer before a meal. What it represented was beyond that though – Chardin intent on portraying hidden virtues, humble honest folk living a deserving life. The circle of figures representing the circle of tenderness and love that was central to the painting.

The contented life of duty.

Evan stood absorbing the mood of the piece, finding himself moved by the painter’s message. It was both simple and powerful ... and timely for someone struggling to make sense of events that had shaken his belief in that life of duty.

Shaken but not broken.

Chapter 11: The Triumph of Death.

Location: Spain
Key Date: None

As abruptly as Evan's holiday had shifted from idle leisure to serious situation it shifted back again, the contrast leaving him struggling to truly relax. Although there had been much more he could have stayed to see at the Louvre the mood just wasn't there anymore ... when Drew packed for the return flight home Evan decided it was time for him to leave Paris as well.

"You going back to base?" Drew asked once he was finished with his own packing.

"Not yet," Evan replied, throwing the last items in his pack and zipping it closed. "I've still got a few weeks leave left ... and I always did want to see The Prado - Spain," he added when Drew looked curious.

"Right,' Drew grinned. "I suppose there's something there you just 'have to see'," he did the air quotes, his tone teasing.

"Not specifically," Lorne shrugged and then chuckled. "Actually there is something I wouldn't mind seeing ... it's another Bosch ... The Garden of Earthly Delights."

"Bosch?" Drew laughed. "I don't know what disturbs me more - that you'd want to see another one of his works or the fact that I actually know who the hell you're talking about."

"Stick with us Lorne's," Evan said smugly. "We'll make a cultured man out of you yet."

"Elaine likes me just the way I am," Drew retorted with a smug grin of his own.

"That's only because you're her new 'work in progress'," Evan shot back. "You know, the more I think about it the more I'm liking this new relationship deal ... rather than spending her time trying to fix me she'll be devoting all her attentions to you. It's a win win for me."

"I think Elaine is more than capable of multi-tasking," Drew pointed out.

"True," Evan agreed, his expression deliberately worried. "We need to stick together ... back each other up ... create diversions to head her off, that kind of thing."

"Or we could just act like grown men," Drew suggested.

"You can try that approach - I wouldn't, but you can give it a go," Evan struggled to keep from laughing ... pretty sure if Elaine could hear him she'd be laughing too, right before she smacked him one.

"You're full of shit Evan," Drew, acting in Elaine's place, slapped a hand to his arm hard enough to have him staggering even as he gave in to his laughter.

oOo

Lorne reflected on that moment as he stood at the windows outside Drew's gate watching his friends plane take to the sky. Nothing said better than that one conversation how far Evan had come since he'd started out from Vicenza two months before. He felt lighter ... more settled ... surer of his purpose than he had in a while.

Checking his watch and doing a quick time zone conversion in his head, Evan took out his phone and dialled a familiar number, eyes still on the tarmac outside as he waited for someone to answer.

"Hello," Elaine's cheerful voice greeted him.

"Lainee," he returned, the smile on his face evident in his voice.

"Evan!"

Her loud exclaimation had him holding the phone away from his ear for a moment. "Just thought you'd like to know that Drew is on his way back to you," Evan offered lightly.

"Aw, that's so sweet," Elaine replied.

"What ... that he's coming to see you first?" Evan frowned.

"No silly ... well, yes, but I meant it's sweet that you'd ring to tell me," Elaine explained. "Does this mean you've gotten over your grumpiness?"

"Hey, I wasn't grumpy about you and Drew!" Evan retorted.

"You so were," Elaine insisted. "Doesn't matter because I knew you'd come around." Not waiting for her brother to give a token denial to that, she swiftly changed the subject. "So, how are you feeling?"

"Now I'm officially out of the art-thief catching business you mean?" Evan queried. "I'm okay ... no permanent damage done."

"I still can't believe you knew the people behind it the whole time," Elaine commented.

"Makes me want to be a little less friendly," Evan admitted. He sighed. "I know they were criminals but even after I confronted them they just didn't seem the type."

"That's probably why they got away with it for so long," Elaine suggested.

"Maybe," Evan allowed. "I wonder whether it was something they did in their youth - you know, a moment of immature indescretion. Once Brian Green had his hooks into them they had no choice but to keep going."

"You've got a good heart Evan," Elaine said softly once he fell silent. "I hope nothing ever happens to shake that."

"No - I'm a tough guy fighter pilot," he corrected, glad she couldn't see the flush of embarrassment he knew was on his face. "And don't you ever forget it!"

"No Sir, Captain Lorne Sir," Elaine said briskly, laughing softly. It was beyond good to hear him labelling himself that way, no matter what had prompted it. "Did you ever hear from Anton?" she asked.

"No," Evan admitted with a frown. "I left him a message but he never called back and we didn't have any other way of finding out what happened to him after Drew and I left the Tate."

"Brian Green?" Elaine suggested reluctantly.

"Maybe," Evan allowed. "I reported everything we knew to the French authorities. They said they'd check into it further - there's nothing else we can do."

"I guess," Elaine nodded even though he couldn't see her. "So ... are you coming home too?" she asked hopefully.

"Eventually," Evan replied. "I want to see The Prado first."

"Ooh, that's not fair!" Elaine complained enviously.

"I'm sure you'll get there one day," Evan said reassuringly ... the least he could do since he still felt responsible for her being unable to continue the art gallery tour with him. "I guess Mom's not there?" he asked hopefully.

"No," Elaine replied. "Late classes at school tonight. She'll be disappointed she missed your call."

"Tell her I said Hi," Evan requested. "I'll contact her soon."

"Okay," Elaine sighed, her voice low as she continued. "I miss you." It was true ... she always missed her brother when he was stationed outside of easy access for visits home but even more so now that she'd spent so much time with him in one block. It had been a long time since she'd been able to do that and she'd gotten used to having him around.

"I miss you too," Evan admitted. "But if you tell anyone I said that I'll deny it."

"Right - tough guy reputation to protect," Elaine smiled.

"Exactly." Evan agreed, glancing at his watch with a frown. "I have to go Sis ... I'll talk to you and Mom soon okay."

"Okay," Elaine said. "Take care ... stay away from criminals!"

"Very funny," Evan shook his head. "I'm going."

"Bye!" Elaine yelled as he moved the phone away from his ear. "Love you!"

"You too Sis," he replied softly, hanging up.

oOo

Like he'd told Drew, Lorne had always wanted to go to The Prado, for its collection of works by El Greco, Goya, and of course for Hieronymus Bosch's most well known work.

For nostalgia’s sake he took the train from Paris to Madrid, enjoying the fourteen hour overnight trip even though he’d probably have enjoyed a flight even more so. He’d tested that knowledge within himself, realising that during the course of his visit to Paris something had shifted inside.

He hadn’t gotten anywhere being ‘Mr Lorne’, only achieving something once he’d returned to being who he really was. Captain Evan Lorne, United States Air Force. He was comfortable with that ... as Elaine had said, it was who he was meant to be.

Getting off the train at Chamartin station mid morning, Evan consulted his map again, deciding to walk to The Prado despite the fact that it was likely to take more than an hour. His thoughts wandered as he walked the wide streets, hardly noticing the fountains in the middle of the Plaza de Colón. He saw the museum in the distance even before he turned onto the Paseo del Prado, another large stately building, this one lightly coloured but still with the classic column entrance jutting out. It was busy on the street outside, locals walking by perhaps not even aware of the treasures that lay in the building across the lawn.

He knew and was eager to see them. Checking his bag at the front desk he purchased a guide book and then just let whim guide his direction. The Annunciation, Descent of Christ from the Cross, The Holy Trinity, The Three Fates, La Inmaculada de Soult. He saw them all, but the painting that had the most impact wasn’t one he’d even actively considered seeing.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death.

It was a macabre scene reminiscent of Bosch’s style, busy in a way that had you looking closer, noticing things you’d never seen before no matter how many times you viewed the painting.

Evan read the accompanying information about Bruegel’s piece as he studied the work. Completed in 1562 it was believed to have been inspired by the worsening political climate before the Eighty Years’ War - either that or the artist had meant it as an allegorical depiction of the horrors of war in general.

Lorne didn’t see that. Yes the picture was rife with scenes of death – skeleton armies advancing on the living who fled in terror or attempted to fight back, neither with success. The skeletons killed all before them, slitting throats, hanging, drowning, and cutting them down with a scythe from horseback. It was gruesome and confronting but the thing Evan found most interesting was that the artist had depicted peasants, soldiers and nobles alike all suffering the same fate.

It wasn’t a comment on the horrors of war, and it wasn’t the artist’s blatant announcement of atheism. What Evan could see in the painting was a very simple message. There was no escape from death – whether you chose to fight or run away in fear, no matter your station in life, eventually death would find you.

Perhaps he should have seen that as depressing ... but he didn’t, because it was a ‘right between the eyes’ reminder. You couldn’t change where you were going to end up but you could change how you got there. You could make it meaningful, do the right thing – do your duty – or not. The choice was yours.

John Jones had made his choice with eyes wide open, with a confident belief that he was doing good, making a difference. And he had. The people in those trucks he’d escorted safely to their destination got there because of John ... and the people who’d been helped by the supplies and care that had been delivered as a consequence had also survived because of his efforts. John had chosen a path that had led to an early end but Evan had to admit to himself that even if John had known beforehand that doing what he did would have that result, he’d have done it anyway. Because that’s who he was and if you couldn’t be true to yourself, then what was the point?

“It is a powerful piece, is it not?”

Evan was startled from self reflection by a familiar voice.

“Anton!” he looked at the other man in surprise. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Looking for you,” Anton replied. “I received your messages but an impersonal phone call in return just wouldn’t have felt right.”

“You don’t have to -,” Evan began.

“I do,” Anton interrupted. “I must apologise ... to you it must have seemed as though I dropped off the planet, abandoning you and your friend to handle things alone.”

“It did seem that way,” Lorne admitted. “I even began to wonder if maybe there was more to your involvement than just wanting to get the criminals who ruined your career.”

“That is understandable,” Anton agreed. “I hate to admit to the truth, because it makes me look the fool.”

“He got the drop on you, didn’t he?” Lorne surmised. “Brian Green.”

“He did,” Anton admitted, “although at the time I was not aware that it was him. He hit me from behind ... tied me up and left me to be found beside the empty place where Ophelia should have rested. It took me days to prove that I was not involved ... in fact, without your phone call I believe I would still be there arguing my innocence.”

“Well he’s getting what he deserves now,” Lorne replied. “And if it makes you feel any better there was an ... altercation in the course of apprehending him.”

“You hit him?” Anton asked in surprise.

“Several times,” Lorne admitted. “But he hit me first.”

Anton laughed, seeming for the first time since Evan had met him to be truly relaxed inside.

“So, what will you do now?” Evan asked curiously.

“Interpol offered me my old job back,” Anton revealed. “Since it turns out I was right all along they could hardly do any less.”

“You’ll take it?”

“I will ... after I’ve taken a holiday ... at home,” the other man replied. “It has been too long since I just sat and enjoyed my own space.”

“I can understand that,” Lorne sympathised.

“And you Captain?” Anton enquired. “What will you do after The Prado?”

“I’ll be going home too,” Evan said with a smile. “Back to Italy to start with, and then hopefully a posting closer to my family.” He’d decided as he’d looked at Bruegel’s work that he’d return to duty at Vicenza first - serve out his time before seeking a transfer to the States. He needed to ‘get back on the horse’ so to speak, confront the past and confirm for himself that he was dealing with it.

“Well then, I wish you good luck Captain Lorne,” Anton held out a hand.

“You too,” Evan took the proffered hand, shaking it firmly.

Anton took his leave, leaving Lorne alone with The Triumph of Death. He wouldn’t forget John ‘Slammer’ Jones, wouldn’t bury the lost behind his mask of stoicism. Death was too often the time when the measure of a man was taken ... in John’s case he’d more than measured up, and Lorne could only hope to do as well when his time was up.

oOo

Sitting in his hotel room that night, Evan stared at the blank piece of paper in front of him for only a moment before he began to write. It seemed fitting that a journey that had started with a letter should draw to it's conclusion with one as well.

Dear Mom,

When I say don’t worry about me, this time you really don’t have to - honestly. I’m fine ... more than fine. The situation with Interpol and the various authorities has been resolved and everything is again right in the European Art world.

I saw the Mona Lisa, and Grace, and ... so many wonders I can’t even begin to describe them. I’ve enclosed a sketch I did before I left Paris ... hopefully it will give you an impression of what it was like seeing Grace in person ... the emotion if nothing else. That’s the idea anyway!

I’m in Madrid right now, at The Prado ... and tomorrow I’m going to see The Garden of Earthly Delights ... you know how much I’m looking forward to that.

And then I’m going home ... back to Vicenza at first but then hopefully home to the States, at least for a while.

When I get back, ask me about Captain John Jones. He was a loyal friend, a talented pilot, and a good man ... killed in the line of duty a month before I left the base. You’d have liked him.

That’s it for now ... I know it’s a short one but I’ll be seeing you soon ... I’ll tell you all about it then.

Your loving son, Evan.

The End!

Author's Note:

I must acknowledge the wealth of sources used for this story. The websites of all the galleries Lorne visited were invaluable for contents and floorplans and the look of each place; Google maps - how else would I know how long it takes to get from A to B?!; Wikipedia - too many pages to mention them all - artists, galleries, police, weapons, works of art, hotels, the Chunnel ... you name it and I probably looked it up; the websites of the various cities Lorne visited - I visited them all too - via the internet anyway!; interrail and eurorail sites for all the information on train journeys; the american hotel website - the only named place Lorne stayed at that does exist; the Interpol website; websites of the various police or equivalent authorities; popular names in France and The Netherlands to name my OCs authentically; video_surveillance_guide dot com; and the museum_security_org article on art crimes in 1999.

Go here to see the stolen pictures.

 

 

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