A lazy breeze wandered through the street. Plants and flowers barely moved, and the pink umbrellas strung up between the buildings for shade fluttered peaceable in the summer air. I sat at the end of the empty street at a small round table and sipped a latte. The crema had long since given up its shape and blended into the coffee.
The last two days were a whirlwind of travel. First, two planes across the states, a third to London, a train ride to Paris, and a drive to Chanaz. I sipped my coffee and thought how much better the coffee was here than in Paris, London, or New York. I was tired, and the cool breeze tempted me to forget why I was in France in the first place.
Signing heavily, I gulped the remains of my cold coffee and laid some money on the table, nestling it under the saucer so the wind wouldn’t carry it away before the waiter could collect it. I know tipping is not expected in France, but I didn’t care. He earned a nice tip.
The open windows on my rented Jaguar let the fresh in as I headed out of town for my destination. The engine’s roar echoed over the countryside as I sped along the winding country roads. Tracking her down had become a travelogue—first New York, London, and Paris. I was on her tail but didn’t know if she possessed the picture.
While technically, I held a private investigator license, I worked for insurance companies and investigated claims. It seems they don’t like paying large cash settlements on missing works of art or other valuable items. If possible, I get hired to find and recover the items and, in the worst-case scenario, prove the claim was legitimate or fraudulent. Too many missing items are traced back to the owner or their accomplices.
I get a finder’s fee of at least ten percent of the value of the recovered items. It's cheaper for them to pay me, to try to find it, than to have to pay out an insured sum. I hadn’t done too badly. The vintage jaguar in my Virginia estate had been bought and paid for by a stolen diamond I recovered from a fence in Spain last year.
The trip across the pond had been financed by Executive Life & Causality Insurance Company out of California. They had insured an extensive collection of paintings, some of which had been stolen. Most of the paintings had been recovered after it was discovered that a con woman had convinced the rightful owner she feared they were copies and she would get them authenticated by an expert she knew. The ruse had been elaborate and skillfully done, convincing the seventy-two-year-old owner that her family's inheritance may not be worth what she thought it was. I needed to track down the last missing painting, The Third Sister, as charged by my employer.
Simon Reynolds was a slight, bald man who always wore large spectacles and a navy suit no matter how hot. The only thing he hated more than not being impeccably dressed was paying out money on claims. When his in-house investigators couldn’t locate the last of the paintings and the most valuable, he contacted me. I took the redeye from DC, and by nine a.m. the following morning, I sat in Simon’s office in Los Angeles.
Simon waited, leaning against the desk with his hands in his pockets and chomping on an unlit cigar as I read through the file.
“Well? Can you find her?”
I looked from the pile of paper in my lap. “Yeah, I think so. But…” I let it hang there. The next part was money. How much was he willing to spend on me, and how much would he bankroll to get it back?
There was no question Simon knew, as I did, who the culprit was. The only question was how badly he wanted her and the painting.
I know her. Gloria Smith, as she calls herself, most of the time. It's a nice, unassuming name and easy to forget. Her real name is Gemma Snyder, and she’s a handful. She’s been tied to a couple of deaths but has never been charged. She likes to travel in all the fancy circles and hobnob with the rich and famous, but she’d steal your coat right off you in a blizzard if given a chance. I’d caught up with her in New York several years ago on another case, and she’d barely gotten away, but not before tipping her hand.
Catching Gloria Smith was going to be expensive. I leaned back in the chair. “What’s your offer?”
“The painting’s insured for two million dollars. Your ten percent is two hundred thousand.”
“Plus expenses.” I reminded him. He glared at me over his thick glasses.
“Plus expenses.” He conceded. “And I want receipts.”
“You’ll get as many as I can, but I will expect you to trust me if I do not have a receipt.” He knew damn well how it was in the field. Sometimes, you can’t use a card, and there is no receipt.
Simon glared at me and grunted. “It’s a deal.”
Simon gave me the details of how Gloria had conned his client out of the picture and what she suspected she would do with it. It turned out the picture was part of a three-picture set painted in the 1800s called the Three Sisters because it was three paintings of three nuns in the church who had served for many decades and were now considered holy by the faithful. One picture was in a museum in Rome. The second picture was in the Vatican as one of its prized paintings.
The third one was sold to a private art collector in France and then sold at auction to another private collector, the current owner's father. He died at ninety-eight, and his seventy-two-year-old spinster daughter inherited the collection.
I spent the rest of the morning calling art dealers I knew would be likely to come across this kind of painting. A couple said they heard rumors that Gloria was making the rounds with a painting she wanted to sell, but no one had seen it yet. One dealer said that she was in New York and had what appeared to be a package that matched the size of the painting he was seeking.
I informed Simon what I had learned and headed for the airport six hours after landing in California. I catnapped on the plane, landing in the evening and heading for the same hotel where Gloria had been seen. I was determined that this time would be different. I had only spotted her in New York a couple of times. The closest was when she escaped by jumping onto a subway train, leaving me standing on the platform. But I had done my homework since then, studied surveillance photos of her, and better understood how she worked.
The early morning sun worked its way through the narrow blinds that shielded its occupants from the reality of New York City life, but it was enough to wake me up earlier than I wanted to. Once up and moving, I threw my go bag over my shoulder and headed to the lobby in search of Liquid Life, which I call coffee and sustenance.
A thick rug covered the floor, and opulent wall coverings added to the quiet elegance and money atmosphere. Most people in the lobby were checking in, but one person at the checkout counter caught my eye.
Her topcoat was not as stylish as the other women present, and her hair gave the casual appearance that she had just rolled out of bed. Her designer pocketbook oozed with the feel of money, but what interested me was the enormous satchel slung over her shoulder. It was well-worn, expensive leather, and, more importantly, big enough to hold the missing sister painting. Would she be brazen enough to carry a priceless painting around in an open carry-all?
Spotting a magazine stand on the side near where they were checking out, I worked my way over to it and pretended to look at stupid mass-market tabloids and glossy magazines while I pulled a photo of Gloria up on my phone. No doubt, it was her. I fought the urge to confront her right then and there, but that wouldn’t have been smart if the picture wasn’t in the satchel, as I suspected. I’d look like an idiot, and my hand would have been played. No, I had to be patient and wait for the right time to catch her with the picture and, ideally, who purchased it.
I had planned to have a quick coffee and bagel before deciding what to do. However, that wasn’t an option anymore. I’d found her and needed to keep her in sight as long as possible. I positioned myself near the doors, hoping to overhear where she was going if she hailed a cab. If I had to leave, I’d have to settle with the hotel or have Simon do it. He wouldn’t be happy either way.
Several cabs lined up on the street in front of the hotel when she went out. I was close behind, all but holding the door for her. She headed for the first cab in the row without any fanfare, just opened the back door, tossed her bag in, and plopped herself in beside her bag.
I hurried to the cab directly behind as her cab was pulled into traffic. The cabbie glanced in the mirror and automatically said, “Where to, man?”
I fished out a hundred-dollar bill, shoving it across the seat towards him. “Follow that cab.”
He grabbed the bill. “Which one?” I pointed to the cab she had gotten into, now stuck in traffic at the light.
He jockeyed in and out of traffic to keep close to her cab. “What’s the deal?”
“Old girlfriend. Owes me money.”
We almost lost her several times, but the cabbie earned that hundred dollars. Eventually, we went south to the Belt Parkway, past Coney Island, to JFK Airport. We kept her insight using the cab number despite the sea of traffic and a hundred or more cabs that all looked alike. I emailed Simon from my phone and updated him on the hotel and where I was heading. He wouldn’t be happy with the expense account bills that would be showing up.
He dropped her off at International Departures, and I jumped out and handed the cabbie another hundred-dollar bill.
I pushed my way to the counter to be second in line and heard her book a flight on the next plane to London. Fortunately, I had my passport and other papers with me. I always kept my go bag with me when on the job being a Boy Scout in another life. When my turn came up a minute later, I booked the same flight. The flight didn’t depart for another hour, so she headed for the VIP lounge. I followed at a distance.
I watched where she settled down and headed for the free food. Coffee and two bagels and cream cheese in hand, I positioned myself where she wouldn’t see me, but I could see her, the restrooms, and the entrance.
The call for boarding came about twenty minutes later, quicker than I expected. There were about a dozen people scattered about the VIP lounge who rose and headed to the gate. I hung back a bit so I wasn’t too close to Gloria, letting another couple go ahead of me.
Once onboard, I stowed my go bag in an overhead bin and took my seat two rows behind her, thankfully. Gloria had stowed her small suitcase overhead, but the satchel sat on the floor before her, taking up most of her foot room. I settled in my seat, buckled up, and waited for takeoff.
The following seven and a half hours were the longest and most boring hours I’d spent in recent memory. The drone of the engines in the background was mind-numbing, and the muffled footsteps of the flight attendants on the carpet and the low voices of their talking were annoying. The noise-canceling headphones I’d packed in my go-bag helped a lot, but nothing could fight off the tiredness of not having enough sleep in the last two days. Gloria seemed to nap the entire trip, besides lunch and a trip to the bathroom, taking the satchel.
It was dark when we landed at Heathrow, and I kept Gloria in sight as we left the jetway and entered customs. We got lucky as British Customs was less crowded than usual, and I managed to clear customs first and waited in the corridor heading to the exit where cabs waited. I texted Simon that I had arrived, snapped a photo of her as she walked past, and sent it to him. He texted back, I was right. The large satchel, portfolio size, could hold the painting.
She grabbed a cab, and I cut in front of a rather angry couple and took the one behind her. Playing follow that cab wasn’t any easier in evening London traffic than it had been back in New York City during morning rush hour.
We arrived at the St Pancras railway station, its tower and clock dominating the corner of Euston Road and Pancras Road. She paid for the cab, and I grabbed my go bag and rushed to follow. Inside, she headed for the ticket counter. I kept her in sight while she booked a ticket for the next train—destination Paris, France.
It was nearing midnight in London, but neither of us had eaten since the VIP lounge and lousy plane food. I wasn't unhappy when she headed toward a restaurant next to the train station. The sleek modern lines, clean pink walls, and heart-themed corner booth were too much for me after a long day on a plane, but I couldn't let Gloria out of sight. She found a booth, and I sat behind her again and ordered. Hopefully, she wouldn’t notice me as the same man in New York City this morning.
The Eurostar to Paris left the station at one a.m. I sat two rows behind her on the opposite side of the car, where I could see her, and decided I could risk a catnapping. She wasn’t going anywhere while we were in the Chunnel. I put my phone in silent mode and set the alarm for one hour. We’d been in France by then.
We arrived at the Gare Du Nord station on the north side of Paris at three-thirty. Thankfully, the station was somewhat deserted. Following her was not too difficult, but I needed help. I couldn’t stay away forever. I decided to risk making contact with her.
I picked my moment to bump into her. I managed to be beside her when she asked a porter where she could stay for the night. He recommended the St Pancras Hotel as it was close to the station.
“Oh, that sounds interesting. I’ve never stayed at a fancy hotel before.” I piped in, pretending to overhear the conversation. She looked at me for a second.
“Uh. Do I know you?” She gave me a questioning look.
“Sorry, I was getting off the train and thinking I needed to find a place to stay for the night. I heard you ask the porter about the hotel, and… sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” I fumbled with my go bag, shoved a hand in my pocket, and looked at the floor like I was sorry I’d spoken to a beautiful lady without asking first.
The porter pointed in the general direction of the exit to the hotel and left, leaving me standing next to Gloria. “Hi, I’m Robert, Robbie. You can call me Rob, Robbie, or anything, and I’ll answer it.” I stuck out my hand from my pocket.
“Gloria, and you're right, the hotel sounds nice. I’m beat. I’ve been going since six this morning, and my feet are killing me.” She shook my hand and quickly picked up her leather bag again.
“Shall we?” I motioned for the exits and the thinning crowds. She nodded yes, and I walked out of the lobby with my quarry next to me, carrying what I hoped was The Third Sister.
Outside, the cool air and streetlights seemed surreal after spending most of the day in a plane cabin or a train car. The streets were mostly deserted in the wee hours of the morning. We quickly found the hotel with its imposing stone façade.
The young man behind the counter was entirely too chipper for this hour of night. As neither of us had reservations, checking in took longer. As I had no luggage other than my go-to bag and she only had one suitcase, I tipped the bellhop and told him I’d take the lady’s luggage upstairs. Before we parted, I asked if she would join me for breakfast, and she said she would meet me in the lobby at nine a.m.
Once inside my room, I emailed Simon, explaining exactly what had happened in the last twenty-four hours. I then contacted a local private detective, sent him a photo of Gloria, and arranged for him to have one of his operatives keep an eye on the hotel so Gloria didn’t get away. Then I took the hottest shower I could stand to wash the grime from traveling halfway around the world at record speed.
The sun shone through the glass doors, making the lobby brighter than I remembered last night. The din of electric lights couldn’t replace the enthusiasm the natural sun gave in the late morning.
Gloria was standing next to the counter when I found her. She’d already settled her bill and was waiting for me. I noticed the leather tote was in her hand while her other bag was on the floor.
“Ready for breakfast?” I grinned as I plopped my go bag next to hers and turned my attention to the clerk behind the counter.
“I’ll go get us a table in the restaurant.” She collected her bag and headed for the fancy restaurant on the other side of the lobby. I watched her for a second and turned back to the clerk.
It took a few minutes to settle my bill and get a receipt for the room. Simon would want that receipt if I wanted to get reimbursed for it. I shoved the papers into my jacket pocket and headed for the restaurant.
Sliding into the booth across from her, I noticed the leather tote on the bench beside her while her other bag was casually sitting on the floor. Two cups of coffee sat on the table, and I thanked her for the coffee. The server came, and we ordered.
I let her lead the conversation, hoping I’d better understand what she was planning. I told her I was over on a last-minute trip for work, but I had time to kill before meeting a client and reporting to my boss. Which strictly speaking was true. I’d always heard the French countryside was so peaceful that I needed to escape the city. She said she was meeting a client in a little village tomorrow in the south of France. I noticed she was vague about who the client was and why, but I didn’t push it. I’d been equally ambiguous about my work, only saying I had a meeting to attend at some point but not specifying where or when. I was waiting for the client to get back to me, and I didn’t expect to hear from them soon, so I had time on my hands for a while.
Whether she bought my lame excuse or not, I couldn’t tell, but I went along with her story, noticing she kept the old leather tote right with her all the time.
As we ate, we discussed various options. I told her I was thinking about going over to Switzerland but hadn’t made up my mind. But at any rate, I was tired of trains and airplanes, and driving sounded good to me. She said she planned to take the train to meet a friend in Chanaz on the Savière Canal, south of Paris. She wasn’t sure of the exact place and time yet. She was still waiting to hear from her friend.
Right on time, as we finished our coffee, my phone rang as I had arranged it. I quickly answered and made a show of sliding off the booth and walking towards the men's room. I didn't go far, just out of her sight. Coming back to the booth, I grabbed my jacket and bag.
“Listen, Gloria, I’ve got to go. My Boss called, and they want to meet this morning. I’m afraid I can’t drive you. I’m going to get a car and get going. It was good meeting you, and I hope you enjoy your stay here in France and meeting your friend.” I threw some money on the table and left.
Simon had called me as I requested to give me the opening to leave Gloria. I hurried to the concierge, who Simon said had the rental car papers for me to sign and the keys and that it was parked as requested across the street.
Gloria exited the hotel and took a cab. Midday traffic was light, so following her cab was relatively easy. The cab stopped at another train station. According to the reference I looked up on my phone, The Paris Gare de Lyon handles trains going south of Paris, which fits in with what she said at lunch about heading toward Chanaz. I followed her into the station and waited long enough to see her board the train to Chanaz.
Back in the Jag, I punched in the data on the GPS and headed south along the Seine River before turning right, then crossed the river and headed out of town. She had an eleven-hour train ride. I had a five-hour drive. I would arrive in plenty of time, hoping she didn’t disembark somewhere else along the line.
After a leisurely and enjoyable drive through the beautiful French countryside, stopping once for coffee, I arrived in Chanaz. I located the train station and found a place to park along the canal. I stretched my legs, found a bistro for a quick bite, and then returned to the train station, parked, and took a much needed nap.
The train arrived right on time. It didn’t take her long to appear out front of the station, two bags in hand. This was one time I was glad the Jag looked like every other car on the road. My old MK IV would have been quickly noticed and remembered. She barely glanced up and down the street before heading straight for a car rental place down the street. A few minutes later, she pulled out a new Mercedes convertible. I’ll say that for her, she was going in style. It had occurred to me on the way down that after all of this if she never had the picture or had already gotten rid of it, I would look pretty stupid. I had a lot riding on Gloria and that old leather satchel.
I wondered why she would go to all this trouble and travel halfway around the world to sell a picture. The obvious answer was the buyer couldn’t come to the States for some reason. Who over here could afford such a painting or would want a religious relic and couldn’t travel? There were two obvious answers to why they couldn’t travel to the States. One being legal, if they came over, they’d be arrested for some reason. The second was that they physically couldn’t for health reasons, making the possibilities more interesting.
When Gloria drove to the main area of town and stopped at a cafe for dinner, I sent Simon an email asking him about possible collectors in France or Switzerland who couldn’t come to the States for some reason.
Meanwhile, I had to keep an eye on Gloria and try to figure out what her next move was. I debated what to do. I couldn’t keep following her around forever and couldn’t show up again after saying I was attending an important meeting in Paris. The best I could do was keep tabs on her until tomorrow morning and pop up again with a story.
After dinner, she walked to a quaint bed and breakfast. I hung back and waited for her to come out. A few minutes later, she reappeared and moved her car to a parking place near the B&B. A glance told me there was no room at the Inn. It would be impossible to come in and blend in. I noted precisely where she was and found another Inn nearby. I was displeased by the idea of not being close to her, but it couldn’t be helped. The best I could do was be sure I was up early in the morning and hope she didn’t disappear before then.
The morning fog lifted off the distant mountains when I parked the Jag near Gloria's Inn. Last night, Simon got back to me about possible collectors in the area who fit the request I’d made. He mentioned one name, Axel Berger, a French technologist who made a fortune in the early dot.com days. These days, he collects art the way I collect old socks. The only problem is he has raised flags in international circles for not being too particular about where he gets his art and has been suspected of selling stolen art to unsuspecting collectors. Simon had given me his details and sent a picture of Axel in the return email overnight.
I was waiting outside the B&B door shortly after seven a.m. when it opened, and Gloria stepped out to the early morning sun. I had to admit that she looked pretty good in the light top and short skirt, and she still carried the leather tote and her other bag.
She backed out, and I followed her at a distance until she parked at an open café. I pulled over where I could still see her. A few minutes later, she sat at a little round table out front with a coffee and food—time to become reacquainted. I circled the block and parked in sight of the café. Exiting the car, I pasted a big surprise grin as I approached her table.
“It is you! I drove past and thought I saw you out of the corner of my eye, but I wasn’t sure. How did you wind up out here?” I stood across from her, half leaning on the chair.
She seemed surprised to see me again. “What? Oh, I’m meeting someone down here later today. I thought you were in Paris. Please sit down.” She motioned for me to sit in the chair I was leaning against. I quickly parked myself in the chair and eyed her coffee.
“Oh, would you like some coffee?” I nodded yes, and she waved the waitress over and ordered more coffee for both of us.
I ordered a croissant and an orange juice to go with my coffee. I told her my meeting in Paris had gone quicker than I figured it would, and being I still had the car for several more days, I thought I’d drive about the countryside and explore for a few days while I had the chance.
I tried to gently push her as to what she was doing down in Chanaz. Her friend was to meet her later that afternoon, but she didn’t say when. Gloria gulped down the last of her coffee, paid her bill, got up, and with a quick, “Gotta go. Nice seeing you again,” headed down the block without saying another word. Now, that was a brush-off.
I finished my coffee and then walked to my car to wait. She wasn’t going anywhere I didn't know about. Earlier this morning, while still dark, I’d placed a tracking bug under her car. As I sat there, the week's events replayed in my mind. It occurred to me I was tired, not just from traveling but from chasing down other people's art and lost valuables.
The information Simon sent me about Axel Breger showed that he rarely left his estate, and visitors were few and far between. One would be hard-pressed to get onto the estate except for a few trusted employees and friends. It was also well-known that his art collection was dubious. Some of his paintings were believed to be forgeries, and a few were probably stolen. If I were right, Gloria would have a rare opportunity to see his collection firsthand. A small part of me envied her. Only because if what I suspected was true, the chance to catch an arrogant SOB with stolen art would make my week, possibly even my year.
The purr of her Mercedes engine echoed over the chatter from the village, waking me from my daydreams of glory. I followed her car at a pace that kept me near her but out of her sight. I let myself enjoy the ride as much as I could. Stone walls boarded the cliff side of the road heading south out of Chanaz. The road had been cut into the side of a mountain, and the trees and undergrowth grew up to the road's edge. There were tourist lookouts along the way, and I wanted to stop and enjoy the view, but whether she had the Third Sister or not, I needed to finish this.
The tracking app on my phone told me she had stopped in a village not far ahead. I was familiar with the village as I had stopped here for coffee on my way to Chanaz. Her Mercedes was parked in front of an ancient stone castle that offered tours. A second car was parked next to hers, and I recognized the familiar shape of the Land Rover Defender. I parked a few empty spaces away from their vehicles.
I rolled down my windows and listened to the sound of trees blowing, and the occasional sound of a bird would catch my attention. I made a couple of quick phone calls before looking for them. When done, I quietly closed my car door, stretched, glanced inside her car, and saw only her travel bag. The satchel was not there. I didn’t expect it to be.
A well-worn path led to the far side of the main wall and into the village. They probably took that path. I followed it, too. I continued along the narrow alley until it spilled into a larger street lined with buildings. In front of one structure, Gloria sat with Axel Berger at a small round table under a canopy of pink umbrellas, sharing a bottle of wine. The same restaurant I had stopped in on the way from Paris.
I stood in the shadows some distance away from them, not visible to them. Leaning against the stone wall, I watched them for a few minutes. Axel had a large leather case on the ground next to his chair. The well-worn satchel Gloria carried halfway around the world sat next to her. They were in deep conversation, neither paying any attention to their surroundings. I debated what to do. Legally, I didn’t have any authority. Even stateside, my authority was questionable, but it was even more so here. But when did that ever stop me?
I ambled over like I was at home in my living room. “That wouldn’t be the Third Sister, would it?”
They looked up. Gloria’s face went white for a second, and then she composed herself. Axel looked up and started to say something but stopped in mid-speak.
I was standing on the other side of the small table, looking down at them. The Third Sister was propped on the table leg between them—an attempt to keep it out of sight.
“Robby?” She found her voice and started to pick up the painting. I was quicker and reached it first, taking it away from her.
Turning slightly towards Axel, I ignored Gloria. “This is a stolen painting. Ms. Smith, or whatever name she calls herself today, conned it out of its rightful owner. How much were you going to give her for it?”
Axel looked back and forth between us. Clearing his throat several times, he took a large gulp of wine. “I… I suspected as much. Which is why I was going to contact the authorities as soon as I took possession of it.” He tried to sound sincere but failed.
“Robby, you can have a cut of the profit.” Gloria had found her voice.
“You don’t get it, do you? Stealing other people's stuff is a big no-no. You can go to jail for it. You should go to jail just for breaking an old woman's heart. I made some calls on the way over this morning. It seems you are well known to the local branch of the National Police. They were very excited to hear you were back in France. As for you, Axel, the authorities have questions for you, too. So, let's have a toast to the Third Sister.”
I lifted her glass just as the first police officer appeared from around the corner. Within minutes, a dozen police officers surrounded the pair of art thieves and arrested them. I sat and sipped the remains of her lovely burgundy under the pink umbrellas while the police took them away.
I had seen the pictures of the Third Sister that the insurance company had on file. But the sister looking up at me in the sun brought the picture to life, and she became real again. Then, I understood why people needed paintings like this and why they were so valuable.
The Third Sister was reunited with the other two paintings after being authenticated by several experts. Mrs. Edwards, the owner, loaned the Third Sister painting to the Vatican, as did the private museum in Rome, so all three paintings would be displayed together. Gloria and Axel were charged with possession of stolen goods. He was also charged with knowingly attempting to buy stolen property. It was enough to get them a search warrant for his estate, where they found several missing paintings and an extensive collection of other illegal artifacts stolen from various private collections worldwide.
I found my way back to Virginia. Simon sent me a check for $250,000, including the bonus from the insurance company and my expenses. Sitting in my leather chair, sipping a fine chardonnay and munching on pizza, I considered the adventures of the week before. Gloria was now out of circulation. Axel discovered that money couldn’t buy his way out of a long list of charges, including theft and various financial charges concerning his creative bookkeeping. It was nerve-wracking, but there was also an element of fun to it.
I couldn’t wait until the next time.