Rick had most of the plan worked out, but he just needed to think out a few details. As he sat over a coffee at Chieveley Services he reckoned that he was just about there.
He was heading south on the A34 from where he lived near Leicester to his mother’s old home in Southampton, where he was due to meet his sister Pauline, who lived in Bournemouth. Their mother had died some months before at an advanced age and the two siblings were engaged in the long and cumbersome business of sorting out her affairs and selling the property.
Today’s task was deciding what to do with the many possessions that their mother had acquired over the years, both before and after she had been widowed some thirty years before. She had been an avid collector of what she supposed were antiques and works of art, with her purchases being very much at the lower end of the market, mostly at charity shops and car boot sales.
As a result, her house was crammed full of what Rick was happy to call assorted junk, and Pauline agreed with him. Today’s task was to sort out what each of them wanted to keep and what could safely be returned to the charity shops.
However, as far as Rick was concerned, it was not quite as simple as that. This was because of what he had found at the house on a previous visit. When going through piles of papers in a filing cabinet – mostly old bank statements and receipts – he had come across an envelope addressed “To Pauline and Richard”. Pauline had not been there at the time – she had gone to the shop to buy a few things for lunch - so Rick opened the envelope and read the letter it contained. It was dated only three months before their mother had died, as was apparent from the shaky – but still readable – handwriting.
“Dear Pauline and Richard”, it began, “I know that my time is short and that you will have to deal with everything I have left behind. My will leaves all my possessions to you jointly, and I know that there is almost nothing there that is of particular value, but there is one item that just might be.”
Rick’s eyes lit up when he read that bit.
“This is a sketch that I picked up at a car boot sale many years ago. It is not of a particularly pleasant subject, which is why I never had it framed and mounted on a wall alongside all the other prints and daubs that you can see. Apart from anything else your father hated it, calling it ‘Tarts on the Game’ – I apologise for his language, he could be quite coarse at times – so I put it in the loft, where it has been almost ever since.”
“About six months ago I was reading a book about the artist Picasso, and it had a picture of one of his best-known paintings – so it said, although it was new to me – and I suddenly recognized it as another version of the sketch I had stored in the loft. The painting is called ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ and it features five semi-clothed women who were apparently prostitutes on a street in Barcelona. It seems that this painting was one of the first Cubist works of art and it is very famous for that reason.”
“But to me it was just like ‘Tarts on the Game’, with a few differences. I got the sketch down from the loft – this was when I felt a lot better than I do now - and compared it with the picture in the book. There was no doubt in my mind that this could have been a preliminary pencil sketch that Picasso made before getting to work on his painting – I could see where shapes had been partly rubbed out and slightly different ones superimposed on top of them.”
“In other words, this could be a genuine work by Picasso and worth a great deal of money. I have no idea how it ended up in a car boot sale, but it is now mine and will soon be yours. I hope this treasure will make up for all the rubbish I am leaving you with.”
Rick’s first thought had been to tell his sister about this letter as soon as she came back. His second thought had been to do nothing of the sort. Pauline knew absolutely nothing about the letter or the Picasso sketch in the loft. If there was a fortune to be made here, why split it between two people when there was absolutely no need to do so? He therefore slipped the letter into his pocket when he heard the door open as Pauline returned from the shop.
As Rick sat over his coffee at Chieveley Services he watched as a guy he supposed was a truck driver – going by the huge all-day breakfast he was ploughing into after drowning it in brown sauce – tapped away at his phone in between mouthfuls. It looked as though he was playing a game of some sort and making a fist in triumph as he moved up to the next level.
Rick could have done the same as he put the last pieces of his plan into place. He would offer to clear the loft, knowing that Pauline would never go there due to her horror of spiders, and quietly slip the sketch into one of the boxes of items that he wanted to keep. To be frank, there was unlikely to be much that took his fancy, but he needed to choose a few items in order to hide the sketch from Pauline’s view.
His main problem would be what to do with the sketch after that. How do you sell a genuine Picasso in Leicester? He reckoned that it had probably been stolen at some point and would be on a Police register of sought-after artworks. That was the missing piece of the plan – he needed to find a channel through which the sketch could be fenced without any connection being made to him. As he sat there he suddenly remembered a conversation he had had some weeks before with a work colleague about an acquaintance of his who had recently been released from jail after serving a sentence for art theft. That chap would surely know about how to fence stolen artworks? Maybe Rick could make some discreet enquiries and see where things went?
As he set out back on the road towards Southampton he was a lot happier in his mind about how things would go. He would get the sketch, take it home, and arrange to sell it to some Middle Eastern sheikh or Russian oligarch via a dubious underworld channel.
But there was a huge hole in his plan. This took the form of a massive juggernaut that was coming up behind him, its recently breakfasted driver still playing a game on his smartphone and utterly unaware that the traffic ahead was slowing down to a crawl.
Had he lived, Rick would have been interested to know that the juggernaut driver in question had criminal connections of his own and regularly undertook trips to Europe – as he was due to do now – to smuggle stolen works of art hidden in his cargo.