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Let's make a story! - Page 7

post #181 of 237
"No, of course not. You saw to that, didn't you?" As frightened as she was, Jessica was determined that he would not know it.

"Be civil, Mlle; we are here for a lovely lunch." He turned to the maitre d'. "The lady is here; our table, please."

He held Jessica's chair for her. His old world manners were in sharp contrast to his appearance and character, she thought, no doubt a result of a privileged life. She knew that Phillipe had been born into wealth, but they had never discussed it. They had been young and very much in love, despite their brief friendship. She finally raised her eyes, "It has been many years, Jacques. What could you possibly want of me? And why would you terrorize me and my family? I have done nothing to you; I barely know you."

"Ah, but you do know someone of importance to me," Jacques replied. "You are now considered to be an expert in French art, true? Don't bother to answer; the University here boasts about its esteemed student."

"That's very flattering, but.."

"Be quiet and listen, Jessica. I have an important chore for you, one that my brother should have done many years ago. You are familiar with the works of Monet, I know. You have been called by many collectors who fear they have bought forged works. Now you will find the real Monet-at 203 Rue de Champagne."

"This is why my friend is hospitalized? This is why you terrorized me and my mother? I have come hundreds of miles to make a purchase you could have made yourself!"

"You're wrong, Mlle. I could not have acquired the Monet. But you will. He glanced up at the paintings on the wall. There was a lovely painting of a young girl at the riverside. "The St. Lawrence is quite cold this time of year, I am told."
post #182 of 237
"You need not make any more thinly veiled threats. I obviously know what you are capable of."

"That you do. And I'm sure you also know that I am not one to take no for an answer. I'm sure Phillipe told you..."

"Phillipe told me nothing about you," Jessica interrupted. Just the mention of Phillipe brought up a storm of rage that had been building for years. "He didn't want anything to do with you. I barely knew he had a brother."

"Well, he got his wish, no? He has nothing to do with me now," Jacques shot back cooly. "But he owed me a job, and I need to collect that debt. Since you are the reason he did not complete his debt to me, you will fulfill that obligation."

"What debt to you? Just because he was your brother doesn't mean he owed you anything."

"I see he did not tell you much about his past. I should have known, it was not the best way to impress a young lady. You thought him upstanding? He had quite a checkered past, and I saved him from jail, and beatings, among other niceties. He was my brother, after all, but it was also business. I risked a lot and spent a lot to cover him, and I expect to be repaid."

Jessica was dumbfounded. Phillipe involved in crime? She couldn't fathom it, although it did explain why he wouldn't talk about the time before they met, wouldn't introduce her to any of his "friends" even though he was always using the telephone, and why even his parents were not shocked by his murder.

Jacques continued, "You thought him to just be interested in art, as you were, yes? He was studying for the payoff of his debt. He was supposed to learn only what he needed to complete the assignment. Then he met you, and actually thought that this business would excuse him just because he fell in love." She could hear the disgust in Jacques' voice.

"So you killed him?"

"No!" Jacques interruped her this time. "I did not kill my brother, but the people we were in business with...well, they were not as understanding as I. Had I saved him that time, I also would have been in the St. Lawrence. Phillipe was enough to appease them, and we went on to other business propositions. Now this business proposition has presented itself, and I am obligated to secure the Monet. I must insist on your involvement, since, after all, you are the reason Phillipe was killed, and he was not able to fulfil his obligation. His obligation has now fallen to you."
post #183 of 237
"The Monet is part of my inheritance, you see, so you will not be breaking the law in the true sense," he continued.

"Then why not just..."

"Don't interrupt, Mlle.; I will explain. My grandmother left her collection of Impressionistic art to me and Phillipe. It was to be given to us when our parents were both deceased. Unfortunately they are still relatively young, and in good health, and the allowance I receive will not allow me the life style I enjoy so much."

"After Phillipe became involved in certain substances, shall we say, I made some very lucrative connections. Phillipe owed these men an amount that could not be covered by his allowance. He came to me, and I gave him seventy-five thousand American dollars. It seems that he had been quite generous to his friends. Of course he was to pay me back by acquiring the Monet, but he did not live long enough to do that. Our mutual friends did not believe him when he said he would get more money. He did not meet their deadline; it was just business. Now you will get the Monet for me."

"It was just business? You are truly lacking a conscience! Why would I want to help you? And how could I take a Monet from a museum without being caught?" Jessica was shocked at the callousness with which this man spoke of his brother's death and the "unfortunate" good health of his parents.

"Oh, you will help me, Jessica, as long as I have a friend awaiting orders in your home town. The first thing you will do is take a position at the Musee' d' Art at 203 Rue de Champagne. Then you will find the Monet. As soon as you have found it, I will give you further instructions."

"Anyone could have found it. You did not have to send Phillipe to the university to study Monet. And you don't need me. This makes no sense."

"No one knows which of the collection is the Monet. That will be your job. It is one of a hundred works believed to have been inspired by the artist. But it is a Monet, and I will have it!"
post #184 of 237
"You have 24 hours to make arrangements to take a position at the museum. Say whatever you will to your current employer, leave of absence, what have you. You shouldn't have a problem. Once you have completed this you can go back to your boring life, if that is what you want."

"I don't have a choice in this," Jessica muttered, mostly to herself.

"No, Mlle. No you don't. Now that business is taken care of, let's enjoy our meal."

She couldn't believe how flippant his entire attitude was. She couldn't just leave her job in the states! Employers don't just let you leave for "a while" until you feel like coming back. But he said that she shouldn't have a problem. Just how connected was this guy? And how much could she even trust her bosses if they could be influenced by a thug like Jacques?

During dinner Jacques made it clear that everything she would need was taken care of, and gave her a bank account number which she could access for her expenses outside of the hotel. When she checked, she found there was a little more than $1 million American in the account.

Jessica started making phone calls once she returned to her room. Much to her surprise, her boss was more than willing to give her a leave of absence, and make arrangements for her to have full access to the Museum. She couldn't fathom the amount of influence that Jacques apparently had.
post #185 of 237
It had been several days since the car had hit Mark. His ribs were still extremely sore, but his headache was bearable. Now he would find out what the telephone call was all about. Jessica would not have left town with another man; he knew her better than that. Although they were not engaged, she would not have been dating another man without talking with him about it. Their relationship was strong, and their connection enabled them to communicate their feelings without words. Despite his doctor's orders and his parents' objections, Mark was determined to see Jessica. He dressed himself with some difficulty, and signed himself out of the hospital.

The logical place to start was a phone call to her parents, but they knew only that she would be out of town for a while, and would call them. Mark pondered the problem as he approached Jessica's house. A woman had her key in the front door. Mark deliberately passed the house and parked a few houses away, then walked back as quickly as his sore ribs would allow. He felt slightly dizzy, but was determined to speak to this woman.

The door was unlocked, and Mark heard stirring inside. He called out, "Jessica, it's Mark!"

Daniela turned around in time to see him stagger across the living room and finally collapse on the couch.
post #186 of 237
"Mark! Oh my goodness, what are you doing here?" Then Daniela looked at the limp form on the couch "Are you OK?"

Mark eased himself to a semi-sitting position and gave this woman the once-over. "Who are you and how do you know me?" he asked weakly.

Daniela tried to arrange some pillows to make Mark a little more comfortable, without much success.

"Me? Um, I'm just a friend of Jessica's. She asked me to watch her house and the cats while she's away. She had mentioned you before, I guess I just assumed..."

"Wait a minute. I know your voice - you called me in the hospital," Mark said. He couldn't believe how much that short walk had hurt him. He probably should have stayed in the hospital, but it was too late to think of that now. Resting brought back his strength quickly, though.

"Me? I never called you. You must be mistaken," she said trying to change her voice.

Mark laughed, then immediately grabbed his side in pain. After a minute he looked up at Daniela and said, "You are really a bad liar, and bad impersonator."

"OK, you're right. It was me, but only on Jessica's strict instructions. She made me promise." She knew she was a bad liar, that's why she had begged Jessica not to make her place that phone call. Now she knew she was in trouble. She just couldn't lie to anyone to their face, it wasn't in her nature.
post #187 of 237
"Mark, do you want coffee or tea? I think perhaps we should have a talk." Daniela made a small pot of coffee while Mark lay down for a few minutes. Then she told him what little bit of information she had. "So, she's at the most prestigious hotel in Quebec on some sort of mission, and she has taken a leave of absence from her job for an undetermined period of time. That's about it, Mark. I don't like revealing a confidence, but I don't have a good feeling about this."

"I'm glad you told me. It must have something to do with the note she found on the porch the night of the accident. What was that address? Darn it! I can't remember--'rue de' something...rue....
It was some sort of invitation, but I didn't get too far with the translation. It was something about her work; I know that much. Anyway, I know where she's staying; I'll just go straight to the hotel. I have quite a few sick days left. In fact, I'll see if there's a flight tonight!"

"Mark, I don't think that's wise. I have a bad feeling about this whole secrecy thing. You might be putting Jessica in danger. She's being so careful not to give out too much information. Perhaps you'll think of that address--the invitation you spoke of, but for now, I advise you to get some rest. You're obviously still in pain.."

"Rue de Champagne!! 203 Rue de Champagne!! That's it!! That's the address on the invitation. That's where I'll go!"
post #188 of 237
Jessica decided that her last call of the night would be to Daniela. She was beginning to understand just how dangerous of a situation she was in and right at that moment, she longed to hear a familiar, friendly voice.

The conversation with Jacques was overpowering her every thought and she didn't believe she could remain composed much longer.

24 hours....1 million dollars...

Jessica let Daniela's phone ring once, hung up and re-dialed the number. It was her secret code to Daniela, a way of letting her know it was she who was calling and to take the call somewhere in private. Not too original but, it worked.

Daniela jumped slightly at the sound of her phone ringing. Once...then silence and once again. It was Jessica!

"Mark", she said casually, "if you'll excuse me, I'll take this in the other room, I'm expecting an important call."

"Oh no you don't missy" Mark answered. "What do you take me for? A fool? I know very well that it's Jessica calling. She's a smart lady but, she forgot one thing. That secret coded ring? She uses that with me also!"

Not knowing what else to do, Daniela answers her phone "Hello?"...
post #189 of 237
"I'm just checking in to let you know I'm OK."

"Jessica, there's something I have to tell you..."

"Is everything OK? My family? My cats? Mark?" Jessica blurted it all out before thinking. Damn! She knew she let out too much if someone was listening.

"Is this a secure line?" Daniela thought she sounded ridiculous after she said it. What was this, a spy movie? To her surprise, Jessica answered as if it were a completely normal question.

"No. I'll call you back in a few minutes." *Click*

Jessica ran down to the lobby, thought better of those phones, and had the doorman hail a taxi. She told him to take her anywhere about five kilometers away where there was a payphone. She asked the taxi to wait for her while she made the call. Same code to Daniela's cell phone.

She started shaking when the familiar, deep voice that was unmistabably Mark answered the phone.

"Wh-what are you doing on her phone?" was the only thing she could stammer out.

"Jessi, what is going on?"

"Mark, I can't tell you. I'm sorry about the story but I couldn't think of anything else that wouldn't make you freak out."

"That didn't work either. I'm coming up there."

"NO!" she almost yelled. She regained her composure to continue, "Mark, shouldn't you still be in the hospital? It wouldn't be good for you to travel right now..."

"Jessi, you can't change my mind. I'm flying up there tonight. Tell me where we can meet."

"You don't understand," she said, in a panic. "It isn't safe for you to come up here. They are watching you there. They will know, they know everything. You can't come up here."
post #190 of 237
That night Mark drove his car back to the hospital, spoke briefly with the parking lot attendant, slipped him $100, and went into the lobby. After making a number of phone calls, he took the elevator to the fifth floor where he entered the men's restroom and pulled a sweater and baseball cap out of his duffel bag. After spending an hour in the waiting room he descended the rear steps and slipped into an awaiting taxi. The next day under the byline of an old friend, a follow-up story on his accident appeared in the local newspaper:

Mark Evans, pedestrian victim of a hit and run accident on Collingwood Drive, will be transferred to the Cleveland Memorial Hospital for further treatment. Hospital officials report that Mr. Evans will be taken by helicopter Thursday, the twentieth of August, to the world renowned medical center where he will face bone surgery and extensive testing for possible neurological problems. His condition is reported as fair. The local police chief, Vincent Guardino, insists that his department will continue investigating this case, despite the fact that the victim has no memory of the incident. One witness,.......

The next morning while Daniela glanced at the article, a smile crossed her face. And at the airport near Quebec, a young man with fair hair and blue eyes flagged down a taxi, took off his cap and sweater and placed them in his duffel bag. He nodded to the driver and answered his question. "The Traveler's Inn, please."
post #191 of 237
After a fitful night of sleep, Mark again hailed a cab and told it where to take him. The museum was a beautiful building and he looked forward to strolling through the halls viewing the priceless and beautiful paintings. He had always shared Jessica's appreciation of art, if not her knowledge. They had enjoyed many an afternoon at museums in their area. He just wished they could stroll the halls hand in hand like they had before.

When they talked about where to meet up, Mark suggested the most obvious of places. True, they both knew she was probably being watched while she "worked," but it was a very public place.

Mark spent the next three hours perusing the art, and getting to know the layout of the building. Finally, he saw her. The approach had to be just right so as not to arouse any suspicion. He caught her eye and gave her the hand signal they agreed on. Then they slowly, very slowly, made their way over to the same area.

Very non-chalant, Mark, he thought. Remember that you don't know her. She's just an employee.

"Excuse me, miss? Could answer a question about this artist?"
post #192 of 237
"I'd be happy to, sir. Yes, this is a wonderful example of Romantic art." Jessica continued to discuss the artist and the period in a professional voice, while internally she longed to throw herself in Mark's arms. Nevertheless, her voice was calm. Finally, when she felt certain no one was observing, she invited "the visitor" to accompany her to the fourth floor where he could view many other works by Romantic artists. He smiled and Jessica led Mark to the elevator.

Once the elevator doors closed, Mark enveloped Jessica in his arms and kissed her. His eyes spoke as loudly as his words, "What in the world is going on, Jessi? Are you in trouble?"

"Mark, I am, but you shouldn't be here in your condition. We have to speak quickly, but concentrate on the paintings I show you. Take notes if you can; in this museum, so near the University, you will appear to be a student."

The elevator stopped, and Jessica held the door as if she were assisting a patron. There was a family with noisy children running around and under the ropes. Jessica spoke with the parents, but was really quite grateful for the distraction. She led Mark to an exhibition by the Romantic artist whose work he had "admired," and quickly filled him in on the details. Mark checked out each painting and leaned close to the rope to appear to observe brush strokes. Finally, Jessica's sense of humor displayed itself. "And, sir, if you don't mind a suggestion, you look awful as a blond."

"Jessi, I think I love you," Mark answered with a smile, and jotted a few more words in his notebook. "Now, how can we get you out of this? What do you think Jacques' racket is?"

"With all the money he's throwing around, my best guess is drugs. His influence seems to reach into the States, although I may be wrong. He might have only one man stationed in Middletown, the one who ran you down." Glancing at her watch, Jessica thought it best that they not continue longer. The family was gone, but a man was now glancing their way. "Now I think you had better leave. I'll call you tonight if I think it's safe. You're at the Traveler's Inn, right?"

The two walked toward the elevator. "Sir, be sure to come back tomorrow at three p.m. We have a lecture in the second floor lecture hall, and the public is invited. Now, if you can find your way down, I'll see if I can help this gentleman."

Mark resisted the temptation to ask her to go with him and entered the elevator. Despite the fears he had about leaving her, he knew that Jessi had to be extremely careful. He would have a busy evening making plans.
post #193 of 237
When Jessica was done with "work" for the day, she settled into a nice hot bubble bath at the hotel. As much as she hated what she was doing, she could get used to the good life like this. All she had to do was call the desk before she left the museum and ask for a hot bath waiting for her. It was perfect.

She was happy that Mark was there, too. She worried about him, and would have fought harder to dissuade his coming if it would have done any good. Obviously Jacques was capable of anything - even killing his own brother.

She actually was enjoying her time at the museum, as long as she could keep her mind off of her real purpose there. She knew she was being watched there. She had seen Jacques lackey discretely following her all day, for the past few days. She almost expected the man to come up and ask for a progress report. She was surprised that no one had contacted her regarding the Monet. Not that she could tell them anything. She was still "in training" so to speak, learning her way around the museum and being shown all the storage areas of priceless art that was not in the current showing rotation.

That man that was following her at the museum unnerved her. It wasn't his actions. He didn't give off threatening vibes, and he kept his distance from her. There was something familiar about him that she couldn't quite place; the way he carried himself, his stance when looking at a painting, his eyes when they made eye contact all reminded her of a time long ago. Long ago, but not far away. It was in this city, many times in that building.

But it couldn't be Phillipe...he was dead. Wasn't he? She thought back to the funeral, to the police investigation. The body was identified by his family, and immediately cremated. DNA wasn't really used then anyway, and the fingerprints were unusable being in the water so long. It couldn't be him.

Good Lord above, she thought, first my Dad, and now this? How many dead people can I possibly find alive?

She thought about it more as she soaked. The possibility was remote, to be sure. It could be some other relative with the same mannerisms. But then again, it could be...
post #194 of 237
Mark found a quiet restaurant only a block away from the museum. Surprisingly, he realized that he was hungry. Seeing that the menu was posted in both French and English, he knew he had chosen wisely. His smattering of French made communication difficult, although not impossible. He ordered without much thought, and ate mechanically, while he pondered the dilemma. He had no connections here who might assist him, not even an acquaintance....A thought crossed his mind, and on impulse he left his food and went to the toll phone. Boulanger......He found over fifty entries in the phone book. Realizing that calling would be time consuming and probably fruitless, he called the registrar's office at the University where Phillipe and Jessi had studied. "Yes, the office will be open another hour." Hearing that, Mark paid the bill and hurried to hail a taxi.

Mark rushed into the school and asked to see the yearbooks from 1989. Turning to the features on the art department, Mark found a picture of a young Phillipe. "Excuse me, Mlle., but I attended many classes with Phillipe Boulanger, and would like to contact him while I'm in the city. Could you assist me, please?" That question led, as he feared, to Phillipe's untimely death and the importance of confidentiality. "I should have known better," Mark thought. Then a thought occurred to him about the importance of networking, and after a great deal of searching, he found what he needed. An hour later it was dusk, and Mark stood at the security gate of the Boulanger estate, wondering how he would talk his way into the mansion.
post #195 of 237
After some pondering, Mark decided that he would wait for another time for a formal introduction. Right now, he had a little bit of eavesdropping to do.

In the distance, he could hear dogs barking. With his luck, perhaps something or someone had their undivided attention. Could he be so lucky?

With a 'thud', Mark landed solidly on the other side of the fence. The impact of the landing knocked the wind out of him for a few minutes and made him accutely aware of the fact that his injuries were not quite healed. He gritted his teeth as the pain travelled up one side of him and right down the other. He could almost hear Jessi's voice telling him what a fool he was to take such risks.

A few minutes passed and he decided it was safe enough to get up off the ground and make his way to the mansion.

No flashing lights, no loud sirens announcing his trespassing. How safe was this place? He walked cautiously, expecting something or anything to discover him. Before he knew it, he was facing the back terrace where he had a perfect view of the kitchen. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Suddenly, two figures made their way into the kitchen. One, he could not clearly see as he/she had their back to him. The other one....it could not be possible, had to be a mistake.....How on earth?

The next minute, Mark held his breath as he heard someone whisper in his ear "My, my, my,....so nice of you to drop by for tea".
post #196 of 237
Mark was forcefully taken into the house. Even though he knew he was not a welcome guest, he was served tea and offered petite-fours on the finest china. The mansion was absolutely spectacular inside. It looked like something royalty would live in, not a crime family. Money, even dirty money, can buy amazing things.

"I am Jacques, but I'm sure you already guessed that much. You are a very foolish man, Mark."

Mark didn't know how he should react to this. He knew he should be afraid for his life, but somehow didn't feel threatened.

Seeing that Mark wasn't going to respond, Jacques continued. "Ah, another fool for sweet Jessica. I've never understood the spell she can weave around men, make them do anything - betray their family, risk their lives uselessly..."

"You must not understand love, then." The words came from a shadow in the corner. Mark strained to see into the darkness, and was visibly taken aback when the man stepped into the light.

"I see you have done your homework, Mark. Yes, it is my brother. He was not killed all those years ago."

Mark finally found his voice, and he was outraged. "What is this, some kind of warped reunion for Jessi and this guy? Who do you think you are to play with people's lives?"

"I will not have you losing your temper in my home," Jacques said calmly. "And I do not owe you any explaination."

Mark tried to compose himself, but the last statement infuriated him even more. "I think you owe me more than an explaination. You tried to kill me, I at least have the right to know why!"
post #197 of 237
"You have the right? I could kill you right now, and you're telling me you have the RIGHT to know?" Jacques laughed a shrill laugh. "Ah, yes, Mark, complete with blonde hair, a laughable attempt at disguise, wants his rights. How amusing. Do finish your tea, young man, before we take our walk."
Phillipe interrupted, "Jacques, that's not necessary! None of this is. I'll go away again and stay away this time. You will no longer have any obligations to...."

"Sons, what is so funny? Mama' and I have just come in and we heard the laughter." An older, rather distinguished gentleman entered the room. "Oh, I'm sorry, Monsieur. I don't believe we've met, but if you are a friend of my sons, you are more than welcome. You'll stay the night of course, and perhaps the week. Mama', come and meet our guest----Monsieur....?"

"Evans, Mark Evans from the United States. Thank you so much for the kind offer, Monsieur Boulanger, but I was just leaving. Perhaps you'll walk to the door with me, and we can talk."

The two men, one young and handsome, one tall and somewhat gray, walked to the door together. Monsieur Boulanger had the butler contain the dogs and open the gates. The night was black and the sky looked threatening, but the darkness was a bonus for which Mark was grateful. He ran to the main boulevard with the speed of the sprinter he had been in college, cutting down side streets, glancing behind himself on occasion, until he finally felt safe. Completely exhausted and barely able to breathe, Mark hailed a taxi. Finally he was able to breathe and consider what he had just endured.

To make certain he was not followed, Mark had the driver take him to several locations before he gave him his final destination. He had discovered that the distinguished gentleman was a semi-retired attorney who was, evidently, independently wealthy. Now, how could he approach this man about his sons, this man who had inadvertantly saved his life? More puzzling-- why did these respectable and respected people not correct the story that Phillipe had died? And had he put Jessi's life in danger with a foolish plan?
post #198 of 237
And the biggest question that loomed dark and heavy in Mark's mind was whether or not he should tell Jessica that Phillipe was still alive. He knew that her feelings for him still ran quite deep. She usually couldn't even speak his name without tears welling up in her eyes, even after all these years. At the same time, he had abandoned her, lied to her about something bigger than anything else. Would she forgive him? Would she hate him? Would she hate Mark for being the bearer of such news? Mark couldn't deny that he loved her very much, and couldn't stand the thought of losing her.

Without even thinking, he had the waiting cab take him to her hotel. Obviously his cover was blown and they knew he was in town.

Jessica peered out the little hole cautiously when she heard the knock at the door. When she saw it was Mark she whisked him inside as quick as she could and glanced up and down the hall to see if anyone was watching.

"What are you doing here, Mark? Don't you know..."

"Jessi, they know I'm here," he interrupted. He sounded defeated. "I went to their house to see what I could find out about them, and they found me there. They knew I was here all along."

"What were you thinking? They already tried to kill you once, do you want them to finish the job? I told you they were dangerous!"

"Jessi, please stop yelling at me and listen." He took a deep breath and prepared for the worst. "Phillipe is still alive. I met him tonight."
post #199 of 237
"Good Lord, Mark, I was right! I saw him at the museum this afternoon! Oh, I'm sorry. I'm not being very considerate; you look exhausted. Sit down, I'll get you something to drink and you can tell me what happened."

There was a chilled bottle of fine wine in the ice bucket, as always. Mark sat with his head in his hands while Jessica poured him a glass, and sat down beside him. "Jessi," Mark almost sobbed the word. He surrounded her with his arms and held her so tightly she thought he'd never let go. "I wanted to help you, but I think I've made matters worse. I was hoping to speak with Jacques' parents. It was a long shot, but we don't know anyone else in Quebec....well we didn't think we did...and it never occurred to me that a man like that would live with his parents."

Jessica's face was ashen when he finished. "Phillipe--alive." She sat for a long time before speaking again. "Mark, you were trying to help. I didn't know where to turn, and when I saw you this afternoon, I knew I'd be all right. Between the two of us we'll get out of this mess. Your idea was actually a good one, but I was afraid to call there. The Boulangers are lovely people--and actually quite fond of me. Well, they were, at least. I haven't contacted them in several years."

"And Phillipe?" he asked.
"Oh, Mark, you're not worried about him, are you? We were young and thought we were in love. Don't you know how I feel about you?"

Her eyes were filled with tears as he enveloped her in his arms and kissed her, first softly, then passionately. "Oh, Jessi, I love you. Nothing will happen to you. I won't let it!"

"I know, darling. I know. We'll get through this. We have to now."
post #200 of 237
(Sorry for the delay, our loyal readers...now back to the story! )

Since the secret was out anyway, Jessica and Mark decided that it would be best for both of them, for security and emotional stability, for Mark to stay at the hotel with Jessica. Besides, Jessica just couldn't resist that little slap in the face to Jacques. They also decided that Mark would accompany her to the museum every day. It seemed a bit extreme to Mark, but he couldn't help but be pleased that she wanted him near her all the time.

Jessica did wonder if Phillipe would still show up at the museum like he had been doing. She got her answer the following day, but before she could make up her mind if she wanted to see him again, he approached her.

"Jessica." The sound of him speaking her name sent a chill down her spine.

She looked at him in the light, not only from the windows but in the light of knowing what she did now.

"Why?" was the only word she could form.

"Oh, Jessica," he said as he tried putting his arms around her. Instinctively, she brushed them away. "I don't blame you for being angry." His was the saddest voice she had ever heard. "Can I take you to lunch, perhaps, so I can explain?"

"Only if we take Mark, too. I'm not going to let you distract me so your goons can get to him again." She didn't mean to be so short with him, but couldn't help it. The love she once felt so strongly was only disgust now. Phillipe looked down, but nodded yes to her demand.

The uncomfortable trio ordered lunch in the small cafe attached to the museum. Silence was heavy in the air until Jessica broke it.

"You said you would explain, Phillipe. Why did you fake your death and leave me hanging? Why are you in with your no-account brother? Why can't you just leave me alone?"

"Jessica, I never meant for this to hurt you."

"Well it did."

"It wasn't my choice. Jacques knew that it was either fake my death or have it done for real. He didn't even tell me the plan until it was finished. He basically kidnapped me and sent me to Europe until well after the funeral, until after you had returned to the States. I know you can probably never forgive me for what happened. I don't blame you. It took me many years to forgive my brother for losing you."

"Fine, but why bring me back here now? Surely you could have found some other expert who would have just done it for money."
post #201 of 237
Phillipe glanced at Mark before he spoke. "It was a foolish hope, and now I've put you in terrible danger. Jacques is more powerful than you could ever guess. Oh, Jessi, I'm truly sorry..." The look on his face was one of pure sadness.

Mark winced when he heard his pet name for Jessica used by another man, but said nothing.

Phillipe continued. "I think you've guessed by now that I was heavily indebted to some drug dealers. I had run out of excuses for needing money, and felt I could no longer ask Mother and Father for such huge sums. My tuition was paid, and I had closets full of clothes. If I'd sold my car, it would have been a pittance, of no more value than a tear used to raise the level of the ocean. I was to pay or die."
"Jacques had earned the trust of the dealers and had paid some lackeys to smuggle drugs from Colombia. When we faked my death, I went to the South of France, and bit by bit, Jacques became more powerful than any of my former enemies. They are gone, and he is the most powerful drug lord in Quebec. But his greed has no boundaries. He knows a private collector who would give anything for a lost Monet."

The darkness under Phillipe's eyes added ten years to the thirty-one he had lived. It was obvious that his repentance was genuine. More gently, Jessica asked, "Why did your parents agree to all of this?"

"They didn't know the truth until DNA evidence was used to open several cases with questionable evidence. Mine was one of them. Jacques informed me, and I returned several months later with a story of needing time to "find myself." My parents were so glad to see me they believed it. Jessica, they are the real owners of the collection, despite what Jacques told you. Only if they die will we inherit it. I'm in fear for their lives, as well as yours."

"Mark, I think we need to inform Daniela what has been going on. Her legal background should help us now. Use a pay phone, please. And Phillipe, are you willing to tape what you have told us? We need documentation of all of this, in case of our deaths. I have failed to find the Monet because I've been looking in the wrong place. The bulk of the collection is not on display. Can you return separately about a half an hour before close tonight? There is supposed to be a thick fog. That will help you to come without being seen. Enter the museum and hide until the doors are locked. After the guard turns off the main lights, he will use the elevator to check each floor. Meet me at the steps leading to the basement. We'll find the Monet tonight. Please, both of you, be careful not to be seen." She looked at Mark with love in her eyes, but only pity and old memories for Phillipe.

Late that night, in the dim light of the closed museum, three figures started down the basement stairs.
post #202 of 237
If the situation hadn't been so dire, Jessica would have laughed at the thought of three of them in black clothes with flashlights in a basement. How cliche. She opened the locked door to the storage rooms, and then held a little huddle.

"Both of you know enough about art to know a Monet when you see it, and you know what the subject is - a foursome of kittens playing in a meadow. Not typical Monet fare, but his style should be obvious. These are supposed to be organized in some fashion, but I'm not sure about specifics. I think it is either by owner or by year acquired by the museum. We'll split up to cover the area quicker. Let me know if you find anything."

The two men nodded, then the three scattered into different areas. Jessica quickly found that the storage hadn't truly been organized in quite a while, with many items in the wrong place, some just stuck in randomly. Finally, she found a stash of Monets. This was the right set of paintings, but the kittens were not there. God help them all if they couldn't find it.

She sat down on the floor, dejected. If it wasn't in the correct place, they would have to go through thousands of paintings one by one. That could take days, maybe weeks, and she knew Jacques wasn't going to wait that long.

Just then, Phillipe can rushing up. "I think I found it."
post #203 of 237
The two started towards the aisle where Phillipe had been searching, when the room was flooded with light. Jessica whispered "It's probably the guard. I'll make some logical excuse. Find a place to hide."

Mark had come running towards the pair, but quickly tucked himself behind a large cabinet. Jessica turned off her flashlight and walked as confidently as she could toward the stairway. "Pierre?" Her voice was soft and sounded natural. "Is that you? I was studying some of these works under a special light we have, and the room lights were...." Her voice trailed off as she approached the first step. There was no one walking down the stairs. Pierre wouldn't be that careless. He would walk down each aisle if he suspected there was a thief in the area. Perhaps he had stopped at the rest room. No, there was no light shining under the door.

Jessica started up the stairs. Despite the pounding she felt in her chest, she was determined to sound and appear natural. The main floor barely glowed in the dim light. She called out as her foot hit the top step, "Pierre? Were you looking for me? I stayed a little late tonight. I was in the basement cataloging some paintings--"

As she turned the corner to the main floor, Jessica became acutely aware that it was not the guard who had turned on the lights. A figure, much taller and more svelte than the paunchy Pierre, stood in the shadows near the main breaker box. He snapped his head around in time to see a figure turn and run towards the South wing of the huge building. Jessica did not look back. She took every turn she could, knowing she was far enough ahead that he couldn't be sure where she was. Then she stopped in front of the elevator and hit the "up" button frantically. "Thank God!," she gasped as the doors opened immediately. She stepped in, and pressed six. The doors closed, and Jessica finally collapsed on the floor, gasping.
post #204 of 237
It seemed like slow motion when the doors opened again. Jessica's gaze traversed the man at the opening doors until her eyes settled on his face. There was nothing she could do but sit there and stare at him.

"Pierre called me immediately when he saw you were still here, and with some help I see." Jacques eyes were cold as steel, and just as hard.

"What? You don't think I would hold up my end?"

"I trust no one Mlle. Jessica. You should learn to do the same. You still think my brother, your precious Phillipe, isn't in the business?"

"But he..."

"You are truly stupid for all that book-smarts you have," he snarled. "You had better hope he hasn't already disappeared again with my painting."

The elevator doors opened in the basement and Jacques yanked Jessica to her feet.

"Find them," he whispered. "And do not tell them I am here."
post #205 of 237
"Why not? I asked for their help! You want the painting and I want to go home. Phillipe contacted me for old times' sake, and the three of us had dinner together. I knew Phillipe could help find the painting, and I invited Mark so he would know everything was strictly business. So we met here tonight, but I haven't found anything yet."

"You must think I'm as naive as you to believe that! You would not have run from me if you had nothing to fear. You are not a good liar, Jessica." He sounded amused, almost happy that she was not cooperating. But just as quickly he repeated in a hard, cold voice. "You heard me; find them!"

"Jacques, we are getting closer, but I assure you I have not found the painting. I had no idea who was standing in the shadows; I was running to find Pierre!" Her voice had the timbre of truth; she had not seen the Monet. Phillipe had said he thought he'd found it, but he did not have her education. "Mark! Phillipe! Any luck?" She hoped the two men had been close enough to hear the conversation and would act accordingly. She had some concern about the remark Jacques had made about Phillipe. Yet the look of sadness on his face when he recounted the past reminded her of the young man she had known years before.

"Jessica, I'm over here. Is there someone with you? Where's Phillipe?" Mark approached and gave Jacques a dark look. "How are we supposed to find a rare painting with you lurking around? And where's your brother? My guess is you sent him to spy on us."

Jessica tried to sound casual, "Oh, Mark, he's in the back room looking at some works that might be by Monet. I have my doubts though; his students show his influence in their works...." Before she could say more, Mark rushed toward the back room. "I don't trust him, Jessica. He fooled you before!" Jacques ran past Mark, and Mark caught Jessica's eye. Even across the room she could see a quick wink.
post #206 of 237
"Psst, Jessica!" The whisper came from almost right behind her. "Is it safe?"

"Yes, he's gone for now."

Phillipe stood and held up an unmistakable Monet. It was the lost kitten painting. Jessica stood dumbfounded for a moment, appreciating the painting, then suddently snapped back to the present.

"What do we do?" she asked urgently.

"That new man of yours has a few tricks up his sleeves yet. I think the outcome will be clear in only a few minutes. I will be in the shadows."

More tricks up his sleeve? What the heck did that mean? Jessica was getting very nervous. She wasn't used to not knowing what was going on, and having some kind of control over the situation.

Just then, she heard footsteps on the floor above - a lot of footsteps, running. She could trace the route these people were taking and knew that in just a minute or so they would be down the stairs and in the warehouse.
post #207 of 237
Jessica's eyes were glued to the stairs. Phillipe hurriedly slipped the painting between two landscapes by lesser artists, and quickly slipped back behind some fifteenth century cathedral doors. She glanced at him with questioning eyes, when a voice thundered down the stairs and into the storage rooms.

"Step forward and identify yourselves!" Other men followed the owner of the voice, and they all wore the unmistakable uniform of the Provincial Police of Quebec. Jacques and Mark stepped out of the back room and Jessica stayed near the base of the steps. Jacques answered in French, "L'officier, ce que est le proble'me?"

"In English, please, officer," Mark requested.

"We received an anonymous call that there was a burglary in progress. I have ten men with me so I suggest that you, Mlle, and your friends offer an explanation. Why are you here?"

Jessica quickly identified herself and the two men, and informed the officer in charge that Jacques' family owned the collection she was studying. The officer checked their IDs and the Americans' passports and seemed to be satisfied. Pierre came running down the steps and verified Jessica's story. Jacques said nothing.

Jessica turned to the officer and apologized. "I can only assume that it was a practical joke, officer. I'm so sorry you have been put to this trouble. It is late, however, so I think it best that my friends and I go home."
Jacques started to speak, but thought better of it. Phillipe had probably left. There was no reason for him to dodge the police.

The group ascended the stairs together, and while Jacques furthur assured the officer in French that there were no burglars present, Pierre spoke with the others, and Jessica and Mark slipped down a hall to a back exit and walked down the back street hurriedly. Jessica's fear dissipated gradually, and she finally spoke- with her voice colored with humor, "Mark, I assume you had something to do with this? You called the police on your own girlfriend? And thank God you did." She laughed. "Two questions: How did you manage that, and what's the real story on Phillipe?"
post #208 of 237
Mark held her off until they got back to the hotel room. Much to her surprise, Phillipe was waiting for them in the lobby. Even more to her surprise, Mark and Phillipe gave each other a high-five. Phillipe offered to buy a late dinner and drinks.

"Can someone explain what just happened back there?" Jessica asked, dumbfounded.

"Well," Phillipe started, "Mark here apparently made all the right connections to get us all out of a pinch. I just supplied the information."

"Jessi, did you know that Daniela is a Federal Prosecutor? Well, I gave her a ring the other day and she started doing some digging on our friend Jacques. Turns out, he's a very popular individual but no one has been able to pin anything on him. She's been working with the Canadian Police and I've been letting her know what's going on here."

"But that's just the beginning of what happened tonight," Phillipe interrupted. "I overheard Jacques talking with Pierre earlier this week, so I knew our search party wouldn't go unnoticed. But when I heard him talking to his lackeys about what should happen after you turn over the painting I had to do something. You didn't give us much time to save all of our lives, you know, insisting we do this tonight. I know you can't act and you can't lie, so I told Mark what was going on."

"Yeah, and Daniela set it up with the Police that if I called with this certain code, they would be there immediately. As soon as you heard someone, I called them because we knew it was Jacques."

"You played it perfect tonight, my dear." The last words got a little sharp look from Mark, but not enough to spoil the mood. "See, if you had known that Jacques meant to have us all killed when he got the painting, you wouldn't have handled the police so well, or Jacques himself!"

"So, my dear, now we just have to set up the sting operation to put Jacques where he belongs."

Jessica was becoming infected with their jubilation. That happens when you don't realize how close to death you actually were. But something still bothered her, and she needed the answer before going any further.

"Now, wait a minute. Phillipe, he is your brother. He told me you were in the business...what is going on with you?"
post #209 of 237
The three followed the maitre d'hotel into a quiet and dimly lit corner of the restaurant, and while they sipped a glass of wine, Phillipe answered Jessica's questions. The elegance surrounding them had no effect on this handsome man, but even the subdued lighting could not hide the lines of concern on his face.

"Jessica, I have already told Mark..I am no angel, as my brother would be happy to tell you. But I have not used drugs since you last saw me. When I came home, Jacques made it clear that he expected me to oversee some 'shipments,' to find people who intended to visit Colombia, and make significant offers to respectable people, people who had been honest all of their lives. Most often, these people had no idea that the special doll I wanted for my niece or hand made crafts I wanted as gifts for my friends might be filled with well disguised drugs. They seldom got caught because I chose them carefully, teachers on vacation, missionaries who were rather naive...They never knew my real name, but I knew theirs. This afternoon I supplied the police with these names. If any have been arrested, they will get new trials, and I will testify on their behalf."

"How could you do such.." Jessica's question was stopped by a gentle finger to her lips. Mark said nothing; his trust in Phillipe was now complete.

"Let me finish, and you'll understand. My parents are relatively young people, intelligent, but not street wise. They have always been wealthy, and have provided everything we could have wanted. As bright as they are, they never suspected that Jacques could want even more, and.." Phillipe's voice became slower, as if every word was painful, "be willing to kill them to get it. I couldn't let that happen. I've been waiting for my chance to get out of this and protect them as well. You've provided that opportunity, Jessi. The police have promised a suspended sentence for information and cooperation, and they will have it. I have already given them Jacques' 'business' book and financial records. Now he will be caught in the act itself. Mark and I will see to it."

"You and Mark? Haven't you forgotten someone? I got Mark involved in this, and I'll see it through! I'm not a shrinking violet, and both of you should know it! Now, what part do we play in the sting?"
post #210 of 237
"Don't worry Jessi," Mark said with a grin. "You play an integral role in this, but not in the dangerous part. We won't have you there for the actual sting."

"I can take care of myself," she protested. "You know I just helped catch a jewel thief!"

"All well and good, but Jacques is no jewel thief," Phillipe said with a determination she hadn't ever seen before. "He's a cold blooded killer, and I have no doubt he won't be captured without a fight. I have a feeling someone will lose their life in this mess, and I won't have it be yours."

"Jessi," Mark said, "Daniela has obviously put us in contact with the police, but they need to catch him red-handed. They are working on search warrants based on a statement Phillipe gave them over the phone, but it could take days or weeks for those to come through. They want to catch him leaving the museum with the Monet. We need to get a good night's rest and we will have everything set up by tomorrow night."

Jessica slept fitfully. The feeling of foreboding that Phillipe had mentioned was infecting her as well. All she could do was pray that they all came out of this in one piece. When she met up with Mark and Phillipe for lunch, the air of jubilation of the night before was gone. They explained the plan as well as contingency plans Mark had worked up with the police. They really had thought of everything.
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