Footsteps echoed around me. My footsteps.
It crossed my mind someone might have followed me, but it couldn’t have been. My dark-colored sedan blended in with the rest of the cars on the road. And in the dark, it could look like either a dark blue or black or if the light hit it exactly right, even a purple of some sort.
I tucked my badge safely away in the glove box of the car. If once cared to read the ID that went with it, it would say, Lew Ayres, Detective First Class, the shield was gold.
She came down the tunnel from the opposite direction that I came in. I knew she’d taken the same pains I had to throw off a tail.
“Yeah, they don’t suspect a thing.” Detective Linda Malone reported.
“They think you’re an eccentric art collector from out west somewhere and looking to buy a rare painting and don’t much care where you get it.”
“They have it?”
“Yes. and they’re prepared to sell it to you for a million dollars cash.”
“You’re sure it’s real?”
“Yes, they say it is. I can’t question it too much, or they’ll get suspicious. But from what I’ve seen of it, it’s real, or an excellent fake.”
“Good. Set up the meeting.”
“They want to meet you at the Westberry Park south side. They’ll be contacting you tomorrow. Here.” She handed me a paper with the name and address of the park on it.
“OK. I’ll get over there early and check it out.”
“Just don’t get spotted.”
She turned, headed back where she came from and disappeared.
I watched her leave, then retraced my steps carefully to stay in the shadows once I was on the street again.
My experience last month with the prevention of the theft of several million dollars’ worth of bearer bonds and the potential hostile takeover of a small company gave me some creds and got me selected for this case.
The mission this time was to retrieve a stolen painting and return it to the museum. The thieves didn’t expect anyone would discover the painting missing until they set up the exhibit opening . However, alert security spotted it was missing from storage. The artwork needed to be back at the museum in less than a week for the opening.
48 Hours Earlier
The museum had two security systems. The public one that everyone saw and heard. And the covert system that no one saw or heard. It was that system that alerted them to the theft of the painting.
The thieves disabled the primary system quickly and gained entry and exit through a secure back entrance. With the ongoing renovation in that part of the building, some cameras were out of service. Perfect set up to get in and out without detection. Almost.
Routine review of the covert security back up system revealed the theft, and the police notified. Art dealers and traders received emails alerting them to the robbery. However,
Certain other parties found out about the theft. Those that dealt in art that was of questionable provenance. These people didn’t ask questions and rarely got their hands dirty. But in this case, the notoriety of the piece would make it extremely hard to sell, and anyone remotely connected to its sale or theft in any way would have catastrophic consequences to the dealer. At the least, they would end up in prison or, at the worst, dead. Risk versus reward mattered. However, the prize was often too great to pass up.
Detective Linda Malone was the star of the art recovery squad and had spent many months undercover in the “gray market” of art. Her knowledge of art and its players had helped her make several high-profile busts in recent years. When she got word of the theft, she put the word out that she had a buyer for it.
It didn’t take long for the thieves to contact her.
We met at the station to coordinate my cover story as a buyer and made sure the details would stand up if they checked me out.
All of this had happened quickly with the museum exhibit scheduled to open the next week and the painting its main attraction and draw. If it weren’t there, it would be an embarrassment to the museum. But more importantly, a theft would ruin the museum’s credibility, and the insurance payout would be astronomical. The recovery of the painting quickly was essential.
It seemed the thieves were in a hurry to get rid of the painting. Once Linda contacted them, she made the deal.
The early morning sun was just breaking over the trees when I arrived the next morning—staying in the shadows. I waited. They had picked a good place as there was no cover to provide proper protection. Linda and I would be in the middle of the park in the open.
The phone call an hour ago told me to be at Westberry Park on the south side just beyond the public restrooms and to bring the money in a large leather messenger bag. It was a heavy bag—a million dollars in small bills.
I was already there when my cell phone rang, having gotten the location from Linda the night before. The calling number was unlisted, and probably from a burner phone, tracing it was useless. I went through the motions of claiming I had to get the money ready, but I was already near the meeting spot.
I had cover, but he was too far away to do much good if it went south. I wore two bugs. One they could find and hopefully find and one they wouldn’t. I also carried two guns, hoping for the same find one, not the other. I hoped not to have to use them.
A couple came from the far side of the clearing. The woman was pushing a baby carriage, one of the old ones with the big wheels and a full basket for the wee little one to ride in safety. Also perfect for carrying a million-dollar painting and a million dollars in cash.
I recognized Linda. The man with her, I didn’t know. I glanced at my watch just before I stepped into the clearing. They were right on time. Always a good sign. I like my criminals' punctual.
Carrying my bag, I strolled into the clearing. I was wearing one of my best suits, and the Panama hat I wore was of the highest quality. I had to look the part of a wealthy art collector.
“Malone?” I asked as we met.
“Yeah, I’m Malone.”
“You have a painting?”
“You have the cash?”
I held up the bag. “Right here a million dollars. That painting better be real.”
“Oh, it is, I assure you.”
Glancing around, he flipped the blanket back on the carriage. Lying flat in the bottom of the carriage was the painting.
“How do I know you are telling me the truth that it's real?”
“It's real, all right. I just got it from the museum.” He reached under the painting and pulled out a duffle bag all folded up. Snapping it open. “Put the money in here.”
I heaved the messenger bag up on the side of the carriage. Opening it, I pulled stacks of bills from inside and tossed into the duffle bag.
“Now, the painting.” I reached for it.
“No, not yet.”
“The deal was I give you money. You give me the painting.”
“You’ll get it when I’m sure the money’s not traceable. Malone will call you. Where to pick up the painting.”
“Hold it. That’s not our deal. I want the picture now!”
“You’ll get when I’m ready.”
I pulled my gun. At this range, his head would end up all over the nice green grass. I leveled my pistol at him. “You're ready now.”
“I don’t think so. See that man over there?” He pointed off to the side.
“If I don’t walk out of here with the money and the picture, he’ll kill her.”
Off to the side was a man holding a gun on a woman. He stood behind her, using her as a shield. One arm pressed across her chest, the other holding a gun barrel against the side of her head.
“Look, all I want is my painting. I don’t want anyone hurt.”
“Drop the gun, and I walk out, and you’ll get it.”
I had no choice. I had to lower my gun. Linda and the man backed slowly out of the clearing. I glanced back, and the man was gone. The woman sat in a puddle in the middle of the glade between the trees.
“Shit! Shit!!” I said more to myself than the man on the other end of the bug.
Officers who were backing me up swamped the park. Two officers attended to the hostage and called an ambulance. She was all right but shaken up badly. She’d been out for her morning walk when he appeared from nowhere and forced her to the clearing. As quickly as he’d appeared, he disappeared. They found no traces of him. We’d all seen him, but it was too late when we did.
I spent the rest of the morning at the station talking to brass and explaining how we not only didn’t have the picture but a million of the taxpayer’s dollars. I kept wishing my phone would ring with Linda on the other end, telling me where to pick up the picture.
The phone never rang.
I kept my phone plugged in for fear of the battery going down and my not getting the call. About one p.m., the phone rang. It was Linda.
“Strong. The picture in a locker at the bus station.”
She’d used my cover name, and she sounded stressed, too stressed. She was a pro, and she didn’t faze easily. She was in trouble.
“What’s the locker number?”
“478. North side of the building.”
“Where's the key?”
“You’ll find it.” She hung up.
I called my boss over. Telling him what she'd just told me. He grabbed his phone. “I’ll send someone over to get it.”
“No, I’m going. If they’re watching the locker and don’t see me, who knows what they’ll do.” He agreed. I'd have a tail on me just in case. I wasn’t crazy about the tail, but it made sense and was cover for me.
It didn't take me long to get over to the bus station, but I didn’t go right in. I stayed in the car for a few minutes watching the interior as best I could through the glass doors. The second gunman had been too far away for me to identify again. But I wasn’t taking any chances. I loosened the gun in the shoulder holster before I got out of the car. Glancing around, I spotted the tail. He was sitting across the parking lot from me. I made no indication that I saw him. I usually button the top button on my suit coat, but now I left it open as it would make it that much easier to get my gun out if needed. Standing just inside the lobby, I looked around.
Everyone seemed to belong there. There were several people at the counters buying tickets and even more waiting near one of the doors leading to the buses. I was looking for anyone who was trying to look like they were supposed to be here. Working too hard at it, that is.
There were two alcoves with lockers on either side of the main lobby. I resisted the impulse to hurry to lockers. I didn't even have a key for 478. So instead, I sat down on a bench near the north set of lockers.
Linda had said I’d find the key. But where? The only place to hide a key would be the restrooms. So, I went in. After doing what one does in a public restroom, I stalled at the sink while the other guy that was there left. It took me a few minutes, but I found the key to 478, shoved down behind a toilet. I barely got it without having to get on my knees. The floor here wasn’t something I wanted to see that close.
Outside the men’s room, I took my time and looked around again. No one seemed to be paying attention to me. I noticed the backup sitting on a bench reading a paper not far from the locker. He was too close to suit me. But I couldn’t do anything to attract attention to either of us.
478 was a top row locker. I opened the locker and found a note inside. I pulled my handkerchief from my pocket and pretended to blow my nose in case someone was watching. With the handkerchief in my hand, I carefully picked it up. I resisted the temptation to look at it now. I folded it into the material of the handkerchief and walked out the door.
This was not a good sign. They were playing games with us now.
Back in the car, I started breathing again. I hadn’t realized how tense I was until I was outside. I remembered feeling like everyone was looking at me. A few seconds later, my backup came out the same door. He didn't even look at me, going straight to his car.
Back at the office, I opened the handkerchief with my bosses and other top brass watching. The note said, “So Long Sucker.” Finding Jamie Roundhouse’s prints on the note were enough to give us a place to start. We spent the rest of the afternoon tracking him down. He had disappeared from his usual haunts, and no one had seen him in several days.
I also set up another meeting in the subway tunnel with Linda.
Again, the eerie feeling of being watched followed me into the subway tunnel.
In the daytime, it looked just as forgotten and forlorn as it had in the early morning hours. As this was a little-used branch of the system, it was relatively safe to meet here.
“What happened this morning?”
“I don’t know. I didn't know anything about the guy with the gun. Never saw him before.”
“Roundhouse. Where is he?”
“He disappeared as soon as we got out of the park. I was afraid he’d shoot me as soon as we got clear. He didn't.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“I’d have shot you. You’re a liability. You know who he is.”
“This is great. We lost a 2-million-dollar painting and another million in cash in the space of 12 hours.”
“I know. Here.”
I took the paper.
‘It’s a list of the fences I contacted about the painting. Maybe he’ll call one of them.”
I glanced at the list. Recognizing a few of the names from the list we’d gotten in from the museum.
What I neglected to tell Linda or any of the officers involved with the handoff of the money was that it was fake. Counterfeit. Particularly good counterfeit, but counterfeit, nevertheless. Only a couple of the top brass knew about the switch. No one below me knew. As far as they knew, it was real.
So now it was a waiting game. Eventually, it would show up in circulation.
Not only was the money counterfeit but marked counterfeit. It was a waiting game. It would show up somewhere.
A month later, it did.
A convenience store security video showed the man I’d met in the park passing the bogus money, and it didn't take long to Id him. Within a week, we arrested him and his gun-toting partner on the hill and recovered the painting.
I met Linda in the tunnel one last time.
“Why didn't you tell me the money was fake and marked?”
“I figured you figured it was marked. As for the fake money, I had to have everyone believe it was real. If they thought it was fake, they’d be less diligent. Besides, fooling everyone was half the fun.”