Counterfeit Conspiracies by Ritter Ames
Laurel Beacham grew up in wealth and society—until her grandfather died and her father gambled away the family fortune. Now with more pedigree than trust fund, she is the premier art recovery expert for museums that need to stay one step ahead of international thieves. Her latest assignment pits her against a mystery man, Jack Hawkes, who is not only her equal with blue bloods, but also seems to know where all the bodies are buried. Suddenly Laurel is racing against time to find a priceless art object before the enemy does, locate a missing art world compatriot with crucial information, and decide whether or not she wants to disentangle herself from this new male nemesis, Jack, who seems to know too much about her and her business.
“It’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ meets Janet Evanovich’s ‘The Heist!’ ‘Counterfeit Conspiracies’ is a suspenseful thrill ride through European villas, priceless masterpieces, and the dark, modern world of organized art crime. Romance, intrigue, and breathtaking descriptions – this book has it all!”
– Gemma Halliday, New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author
Clouds shrouded the moon. The Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo, snoozed by the rose bushes after devouring the tasty treat I had offered. Waves crashed in the distance and gave the crisp sea air a taste and smell of salt spray. The estate’s showplace lawn ended a hundred yards away at a private beach.
Like my previous visit, I wore head-to-toe black. For this jaunt, however, I hadn’t donned the ebony-beaded VeraWang halter gown and JimmyChoo stilettos I sported the last time. No, for the current foray, my Lycra garb more closely resembled Catwoman with my blonde hair hidden under a dark hood. Night vision goggles finished off the ensemble. The difference between arriving invited versus an incognito—and illegal—entrance.
As I slipped through the mansion’s side door, the left wall security pad flashed. I patted the ring of leather pouches attached to my belt and removed a cute little gizmo I’d picked up in Zurich that resembled a garage door opener. Only this handy gadget decoded electronic security systems, rendering them harmless. The tiny warning whine never had a chance to turn into a scream; my device made friends and invited us to enter.
I slipped down the rear hall and up the staircase that my research had uncovered in a back issue of Architectural Digest. At the upper landing, infrared lasers protected the area from unwelcome visitors. I opened another pouch, withdrew a small, specially formulated aerosol can, and sprayed in a sweeping pattern. As the particles fell, laser lines were revealed in vivid detail. Seconds later, I’d picked the lock on the turret gallery door.
The last time I stood in that room the master of the house provided a guided tour and made a blatant pass beneath the gaze of a Dutch Master. My ability to deflect the Lothario took grace and diplomacy, plus restraint to curb my strong desire to disable his favorite body part. Still, the event had been worth the effort. A six-month quest was over, and I had found my Holy Grail of paintings.
“My father started this collection,” the slimy billionaire had bragged. “He made purchases while stationed in Europe in the mid-1940s. I added to the works and specially constructed this temperature-controlled castle safe-room.”
On this return visit—my acquisition finale—I slid into the darkened gallery. The circular space, lit only by the minimal luminosity filtering through a half-dozen narrow arched windows, allowed my shadow to mix with those already in residence. Night vision goggles allowed the glorious set of Rembrandts and French Impressionists to glow alongside the beauty I came to liberate.
It was a vibrant seascape, circa 1821, and a breathtaking scene of energy and clear passion. A little known work by a well-respected artist, which had been cherished by the family of its previous owner before eventually falling into the hands of the billionaire’s father. Gazing upon the work, I could almost hear the buoy bell ringing in the distance, but the room’s current illumination left the scene too dark to see beyond the receding foamy water. I shivered as if the wind picked up; the painting was that powerful.
I heard a noise. A human-moving noise.
I had to hurry. I slipped a blade from my belt and ran it along the frame’s edge.
The moment the canvas was free, I heard the master of the house bark, “What are you doing?”
I spun to find him standing behind me. Holding his gaze, I sheathed my knife and dug into another pouch, then threw a capped vial into the darkness between myself and potential capture. The glass broke, and when the chemicals inside hit the air, a dense smoke obscured all vision. But I had already calculated the distance to the nearest window, moved to it, and affixed a suction cup with a braided nylon line to the wall. The painting protected in one hand, my remaining gloved fist, fitted with brass knuckles, shattered the narrow pane. I slid through the turret’s slit-window, taking a few shards of glass along for the ride. Then I rappelled down the rough stone wall to the manicured lawn.
“Zeus! Apollo! Robbery! Attack!” my impotent enemy screamed.
* * *
Next morning, the painting and I slipped into the back of Greg’s shop for the new frame constructed per my specifications. A close facsimile to photos, and infinitely better than the garish gold number that restrained the seascape during its turret imprisonment, the burnished brass frame even evoked a nautical theme that conjured the look of a spyglass.
I changed into blue coveralls and left his shop with the newly framed painting wrapped in brown paper. Magnetic signs attached to my van implied a courier service, as did the faked breast pocket insignia on my uniform. The drive to Mrs.Lebowitz’s tiny home was quick.
“Yes?” she answered the door. A Holocaust survivor, the only one in her family to make it out of Europe alive, she was a child when the Allies freed her from Auschwitz.
My brown-wrapped package once graced her grandmother’s dining room. Before it was stolen by Nazis and purchased with fictionalized provenance by my adversary’s father.
“Mrs.Lebowitz, I have a very special delivery.”
* * *
Eighteen-hours and one chartered jet flight to Italy later, I was still running on adrenalin as I played the part of art world socialite representing the New York based Beacham Foundation. Easy enough, since I’d perfected the role over the last five years, except that nothing was going right tonight.
“A quick and easy pickup,” Max, my boss, had told me. “Everything is taken care of. Don’t worry.”
It was another black-tie affair with nothing more to go on than a name and small photo that Nico had slipped me earlier with a flute of Dom Pérignon. Not a perfect method but par for the course.
Only things had gone from bad to worse quickly. I’d received a bogus text with driving instructions that sent me in the wrong direction, my contact in the photo was nowhere to be found, and I’d noticed one of the attendees seemed a bit too interested in me. I’d dodged him once in the entry, again in the ballroom. And here he was again. Churning through the crowd like a heat-seeking missile. A RhettButler wannabe in Armani.
I’d racked my brains trying to figure which camp he fit into, but got nada. With so many players in the art game, it was hard to keep everyone straight, both above and below ground. But a new American would have stayed in my memory, especially a tall male one with a deep Southern accent. Was it simple egoism, or did he work for someone plotting against me? My money lay on the latter. Especially after the diverting text.
He blocked my way. “How ’bout we take a late night stroll outside? A lil birdie tol’ me the air on this Italian bay is soft as warm satin slidin’ over your skin.”
Disregarding my first impulse, which would have left him with a broken nose, I kept my breathing and temper at even levels. I needed to find out what his game really was—but not now.
“Why don’t you ask that lil ol’ birdie to join you?” Did the bogus text come from Mr.Wonderful, here? The man who had paid me too much attention this evening? My palms were damp as I ran them down my black sheath, ostensibly to smooth the material around my hips. It wasn’t the best move in the world, but I couldn’t risk his grabbing a hand and getting the truth ‘handed’ to him. I sidestepped.
“I’m afraid that lil birdie has moved on to bigger and better things.” One of his strides halved the distance between us. “You know, honey, while gentlemanly manners forbid I refer to a lady by anything other than beautiful, I must say you’re looking very pale at this moment, even for a natural blond, Miss . . .”
Miss None of Your Business! But I wasn’t fooled. I saw the intelligence behind those teal eyes. He knew I was LaurelBeacham. Hell, he probably knew my middle name was Iris and I’d streaked through the Cornell library freshman year. I didn’t know how he knew—just that he did. I also knew anger had replaced any paleness on my face with a bright blush.
“I’m sorry, I don’t feel well,” I lied, turning before he could stop me. I strode quickly down a hall, relieved when a discreet lavatory door offered refuge.
I took a couple of deep breaths, regaining my composure. Though, as I looked around the lavatory, that composure quickly died.
A mosaic-tile wall separated the toilet from the lavish dressing salon. A pair of wingtips peeked from behind the wall at an awkward angle. I hurried around the wall and stopped short.
There was no mistaking him. Propped on the john was the man from the photo who I was supposed to meet. Half of his handlebar moustache was jaggedly slashed and discarded on the floor, while blood from a gash at his throat spilled down his round belly and onto the cushioned turquoise seat.
Even as nausea hit, my mind ticked over the possibilities. From the look of things, he had been dead only a few minutes. No blood trail, so he’d been killed where he sat.
I frisked him, careful not to touch skin as I explored bulges that could be the seventeenth-century snuffbox I’d been sent to recover, but the search proved fruitless. Something wasn’t right. The snuffbox, though a valuable art object, didn’t warrant taking the man’s life.
Straightening, I went to the sink and washed my hands. Twice. This party was definitely over. I had to find Nico and get both of us out of there.
Black ties and dazzling dresses swirled around the ballroom to kaleidoscopic effect. Still touched by shock, I marveled a moment at what crystal chandeliers did for precious gems and designer signatures. The international cast comprising the guest list had once made this job interesting, but now they just hindered my progress. I prayed Nico hadn’t slid off with one of the real hired help for an assignation—his modus operandi when his phase of the work was completed. I couldn’t face another systematic exploration of CasaAzzuro’s gold leaf, fine tapestries and Carrera marble.
Relax. Don’t act like anything is wrong. I took a long cleansing breath, and spotted Nico’s dark curly head. Sans tray, he sported a tuxedo jacket obviously cached for his own ulterior purposes, chatting up an Yves St Laurent model known to the rags as a poseur. Nico didn’t care. He had other uses in mind for her physical talents.
“The lights are very bright in here,” I remarked, joining the couple.
Nico’s eyes narrowed at what my words signaled. “Now?”
“Yes, they hurt my eyes.”
Miss Poseur giggled. “Essayez de lunettes de soleil.”
Sunglasses in a ballroom. Yes, she was a bright one. Nico gave a resigned, almost-Gallic shrug, and moved away.
A circulating waiter offered champagne. I grabbed a flute for camouflage.
My arm jerked, hit from behind, and I watched, helpless, as the narrow glass arced in mid-air, then shattered on the marble floor. Icy shards narrowly missed the exposed heel of a delicately shod duchess. A waiter dashed toward us to pick up the sharp pieces. I could not believe this evening.
“I’m so sorry…” I started to tell the duchess. But my words dropped off as whoever had bumped my arm suddenly had a hand at my waist. I froze, the hair on the back of my neck rising as I turned to face him. Mr.RhettWannabe. Again.
The duchess gave me a cool smile. Then her dismissive gaze skipped over my shoulder and softened, her features donning a flirtatious mask at the man behind me. He leaned in and murmured apologies into her ear, causing her to giggle like a schoolgirl.
I didn’t know which made me madder, his inescapable grip or the way this “Southern gentleman” both restrained and ignored me.
“Do you mind?” I spoke to Teal Eyes between clenched teeth. Creating a scene was out of the question. This job demanded a low-key persona.
But he still ignored me, continuing to converse in perfectly accented Parisian French.
With a gay laugh, the duchess raised a sparkling hand to pat his cheek and turned away, never acknowledging I was even in the ballroom. My inner child felt extremely slighted.
Before I could twist free, his other hand vised on my right arm and steered me toward the two-story glass doors that led to an elegant stone balcony.
“Let’s go out on the terrace.” Teal Eyes lifted a jet eyebrow in a ClarkGable gesture. “The lights against the dark sea should be lovely. Don’t you think?”
“Does it really matter what I think?”
“Glad you agree.”
Nico was a step behind us. I gave him a slight shake of my head. While my Southern Charmer was clearly not what he seemed, if I ran now, too many questions would remain unanswered. Who was he? Who did he work for? Had he killed my contact? I knew I needed to get out of here before the dead man in the lavatory was found, but I didn’t know how worried I should be about Mr.TealEyes. And this might be my best chance to get the intel I needed. It was becoming more and more obvious he was on someone’s payroll. And no one in my business made himself this obvious to someone else without a reason.
Nico stood back while I obediently followed Southern Charm’s lead. Strains of IshamJones’s and GusKahn’s “It Had to Be You,” my late grandfather’s favorite song, wafted overhead, continuing a pattern of music for the evening as varied as the guest list. Only minutes before, the crowd had been doing its best Mick Jagger impersonations to a pounding interpretation of “Honky Tonk Woman,” proving more than Maroon 5 wanted to move like Jagger.
Any other time I would have been enjoying the cosmopolitan crowd gathered to raise money for the latest Italian restoration effort. International wheeler-dealers, like my late grandfather, appreciated the historic value of the old artists. Contributing a portion of the night’s “winnings” was a small price to pay for the honor of seeing family names on appropriate plaques.
Of course, the loss of said family fortune by a father who bet on anything that moved meant I had to work for a living. Something that raised eyebrows in “our crowd.” Hence, getting my name on the guest list meant more than just wrangling an invitation.
The terrace was void of other patrons as we approached. Better for the inquisition I had in mind, but also easier to end up like my unfortunate contact. Not for the first time that night, I cursed the fact that my Giorgio couture was not designed to conceal a .38.
“So, is this dogged persistence the line you usually take? The only way you can get a lady to yourself?” I opened.
“A lady would have been much more diplomatic when she rejected my advances.” He took me near the edge of the terrace, and as far as possible from any eavesdropping guests. Nothing like great wealth to bring out the nosiness in people.
“So you recognized the rejections for what they were, but kept advancing,” I responded.
“All I did was strike up a conversation.”
“And ask me to dance, and offer me drinks, and shanghai me out into the Italian night with some line that probably came out of a bad romance novel.”
I jerked out of his grip and moved toward the rock wall that separated the balcony floor from a sudden trip to the beach far below us. I paced as I continued. “Besides, where did you pick up that pitiful drawl? It never really worked for Gable, and you don’t have the charisma to pull it off.”
He stepped closer, stopping a few feet short of the rock barrier. He grabbed my right wrist with his left hand. I continued moving, deliberately taking a couple of steps too many. The pointed heel of my shoe accidently landed in the middle of his Italian loafer. Hard.
I heard a quiet oath as he dropped my wrist and swung his right arm. My stiffened forearm thwarted the potential blow, and I shot a leg out, aiming for his knee.
My foot never made contact. Reflexes better honed than mine reacted even faster. He flipped my foot heavenward and I overbalanced, falling backward onto my . . .
Well, let’s just say the stone floor proved every bit as uncomfortable as it looked.
He then had the nerve to reach out a hand to help me up. Unbelievable. Knocking it aside, I scrambled to my feet, but couldn’t keep from rubbing my injured anatomy. Adding salt to the wound, he didn’t even bother rubbing the foot I knew must be throbbing.
His drawl was replaced by a clipped English accent when he spoke again. “So the little lioness knows how to fight. I wonder what else she knows.”
“Oh, I took self-defense courses with the rest of the ladies in my neighborhood,” I said, smiling at the explanation I’d so often used. “Let’s forget about me and talk about you. I notice you have a penchant for accents. First, RhettButler, then MauriceChevalier, and now the Prince of Wales. What’s next? VladimirPutin? Look, I’m tired. Why don’t you just tell me what you want, why you’ve been dogging me all night, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll let you walk away without taking exception.”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing about you,” he said, only addressing the first part of my question. “You work a room quite nicely. In fact, the first time I saw such orchestrated movements was a little soiree in Monaco about six months ago. Of course, the woman there was a graceful redhead, but . . .”
I kept my features a poker-faced mask as I waited for him to go on.
He took a deep breath and leaned against the railing. “Then, three months ago, I was at a party on a yacht anchored off Crete when I noticed a sleek brunette laughing up at a man, obviously her lover, as they drank bubbly in the moonlight. Everyone has certain movements they make over and again. A living fingerprint if you will. Your gestures are unmistakable, like the way your teeth worry your bottom lip, and remove all your lipstick.”
Startled, my teeth released my errant lip. Damn. He was right.
He chuckled, then raised his right hand. “Yes, I would swear in a court of law that the redhead at the baccarat table, and the brunette with her lover were the same long-limbed blonde I’m staring at right now.”
I knew that yacht party. It was the last time I’d been with SimonBabbage, my mentor and the head of European operations for the Beacham Foundation. The last time we’d been a couple. It was also when a Dutch Master slipped out of museum circulation and into “the other realm.”
“You must be mistaken. I know I’ve never seen you before or I would have . . .”
“What? Run the other way? Grabbed me with both hands? Searched and seized me?”
I looked at my watch. Where the hell was Nico? Who the hell was this guy?
“Who the hell are you?” I voiced my thoughts aloud.
He pulled a cheroot from the inside pocket of his jacket and lit a gold Dunhill lighter. “They call me Bond. JamesBond.”
It took everything I had to keep from slapping him. “Look, your fairy tale was flattering. Obviously, I’m the girl of your dreams, but I’ve never been near Monaco, nor has my hair ever been red. Maybe you should have your eyes checked. Or see a therapist. I’ll pardon your behavior on the grounds that you thought you recognized me, so I can perhaps salvage the rest of this night. If you’ll excuse me . . .”
There was a sudden a shift in atmosphere between us. I had about three seconds of “civil” left before he sprang into whatever action he’d followed me here for. I got two steps from the open French doors before his viselike grip had my elbow again.
“Excuse me, mademoiselle, if I may interrupt?” An unexpected voice came out of one of the terrace’s dark corners.
Relief flooded through me when I recognized the indeterminate accent of our host. As the suave billionaire approached, someone fired a roman candle from the beach, briefly illuminating the man’s gentle curiosity with exquisite pyrotechnics. The aging playboy directed an apologetic smile in my direction, then turned to Teal Eyes.
“Claudio is looking for you, my friend. The game is about to start, and we’ve been unable to find several of those who reserved seats. Will you go at once, or shall I inform them you’ve been delayed?”
“I’ll be there shortly, Giovanni.” My captor’s southern drawl was back firmly in place, and his tone remained even. However, the momentary tightening of his hand on my arm told me that here was a man who hated to be questioned or have his plans altered. He dropped my arm and smoothed down his jacket, limping slightly as he reentered the ballroom.
Alone at last, I headed straight for the wall and removed my stilettos before my feet hit the sand. Nico was on his own. I declared myself officially off duty.
Ritter is an award-winning author who writes the fast-paced suspense Bodies of Art mystery series and the cozy Organized Mysteries series, both published by Gemma Halliday Publishing. She focuses most of her time and writing energies on globe trotting the world via her keyboard to create memorable characters and fascinating fiction novels for readers. In this great new endeavor, her cat muse remains faithfully by her side — only voicing displeasure when the food bowl sits empty due to Ritter focusing more on writing than on kibble.
Ritter tries to blog regularly at http://ritterames.wordpress.com/ and subscribe there to get the latest news about upcoming releases, and inside scoops on her characters and series. She uses her Pinterest boards at http://www.pinterest.com/ritterames/ to capture great places and ideas she wants to use in both series. Follow her blog and boards to learn more about Ritter and her upcoming books. You can find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ritter.ames and on Twitter @RitterAmes.
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