The Art Thief – A Mystery in France

 

I stepped up the staircase as voices sounded from above .

I walked into the wide corridor to find my landlord arguing with the detective inspector as both stood under a broken skylight. A silver chandelier drooped from the ceiling and the velvet curtains were drawn. The warm, drowsy air this place had always given me returned, floating into the old walls, the wooden floors.

Madame Annette was arguing. Although frail, the old lady could still give anyone a run for his money.

The inspector looked exasperated. ‘So we can say the burglary happened around midnight. Did you hear any noises upstairs?’

‘I’d taken my sleeping pills and popped off monsieur. Still as a dead man,’ she replied, frowning. ‘It was Marguerite, the cleaning girl who found the painting had gone,’

‘And are you certain it was a Cora Patil portrait?’

‘I think I’d know young man. Don’t doubt about my own house.’

That one was true. The house was the only family Madam Annette was left with. I knew she detested the smallest crack, the faintest spider web in the ceilings.

‘Madame Annette,’ the inspector said, wearily. ‘Don’t you realize the implications of this burglary?’

‘Don’t test me Inspector Caron -‘

I jumped in, the old lady was a bomb ticking off.

‘No madame.’ I panted. ‘This  has happened before. In the past month, three paintings have been stolen from a clerk, a government official and the National Museum of Art, separately. Now one from you.’

‘Why isn’t it in the papers?’ Madame Annette asked irritably.

‘Because Cora Patil was never a rich artist,’ said Inspector Caron. ‘Her paintings gathered her a small fortune but she was never sought after. Just as she was beginning to sell and her wealth grew, she untimely passed away three years ago.’

He stared at me. ‘Didn’t attract the press much, I don’t know how you know it then.’ Inspector Caron was a tall, dark man with coal eyes, and he didn’t look easy to deal with.

He sized me up and I’ll admit, I was a slightly scrawny 18 year old to look at. I had a small built and dark eyes with feathery cropped hair which my mother had only just let me cut before coming. With my knee length curtain earlier, I’d looked like an Asian Rupanzal jumped up into the real world. But, I reminded myself as he gazed critically at me, appearance didn’t account for intellect.

‘You missed an important point,’ I said lightly. ‘In every single burglary, they’ve left a note. I bet it’s here too.’

We turned to face the  white wall, where the dark impression of the portrait had stayed on. A yellow sticky note was stuck in the middle of the space, in safe typewritten letters. 

‘Come children to clowns and the cats. Office, home, garage, we all have one.  By a circus which cannot afford midnight shows. Nor any chocolates, tarts, berries. Or any sort of fun at all. Now worst spirits will befall you, the lord will curse. Fears shouldn’t scare you my child, because dreams are realized.

‘That’s utter nonsense,’ Madame Annette cried.

‘Exactly,’ sighed Inspector Caron. ‘It’s been similar nonsense like this in every single robbery.’

I took out my phone and the camera’s flash went off on the wall before the inspector could protest. ‘Delete that,’ he said firmly. ‘Who are you, again?’

 ‘Ira Malik. I moved here from India an year ago for college. To Nice, the art town of France. And ironically here we are, solving an art mystery.’

I smiled. He didn’t return it..

”We?’ The inspector grimaced. ‘I’m, not allowing college students to work alongside the police force, mademoiselle.’

‘I’ve helped the police in my own country.’

‘That’s irrelevant.’

‘I’m planning to join as a detective after graduation.’

‘Actually,’ Madame Annette interrupted, pleased to jump into the fray. ‘Ira’s a smart girl.’

Inspector Caron turned to me. ‘Don’t force me, mademoiselle.’

‘Helped me find my glasses once,’ added the old lady. ‘Turned out they were on the top of my head after all.’

‘It’s my decision,’ snapped Inspector Caron.

‘She could even tell when Collette was faking a headache and didn’t want to work, downstairs..’

‘I may have to escort you off the crime scene for this,” Inspector Caron said.

”Told me my ticket was in my own pocket when I was madly bustling about the house,’ murmured Madame Annette.

I stamped hard as both looked up to me startled. ‘Alright Inspector Caron,’ I said. ‘Here.’

My screen buzzed with a pop up as I deleted the picture. The inspector nodded, satisfied. He didn’t know I’d already mailed it to myself, but that didn’t matter.

I had a notion about the letter, but telling Inspector Caron now would ruin the game. He would get my help, whether he wanted it or not.

‘We know this thief is a physically fit wonder,’ Inspector Caron said after a moment. ‘Thorough examination has proved that he used no medium to climb up the floors, and he’s stolen the other three similarly.’ He glanced up, towards the broken skylight.

‘Another marvelous coincidence is that these four paintings, all come from Guilliame’s,’ he said slowly. ‘It’s an unknown, thriving business downtown but they made the strike of their lives with Cora Patil’s last four portraits before death, buying it straight off the family.’

I wanted to ask him more, but it would be no use raising his suspicions. I’d have to surf online and get the facts. Inspector Caron wasn’t looking to be of much help.

Pretending to be disinterested, I roamed around the room a few minutes and then shook the inspector’s hand before stepping downstairs. I could hear voices above me as Madame Annette resumed arguing. She was a handful.

‘What I don’t understand inspector, is why someone would go to such lengths for those pictures…’

 

I passed the second landing and descended to the ground floor, a large lit up hall with people hurrying about. Officers had been dispatched throughout the house, interrogating the staff.

I strode towards the door when someone suddenly slammed into me. I fell back as she screamed. It was Marguerite. I’d seen an officer interrogating her as I’d gone up. I got to my feet and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

The frail thing was trembling. Marguerite was only an eleven year old with deep red braids and pale eyes., painfully shy all the time I’d known her. Madame Annette had found her homeless on the streets, and brought her here three years ago. She could speak English and was beginning to write.

‘Did that officer trouble you?’ I asked kindly. She shook her head but from her glimmering eyes, I could see she’d been crying. I gave her a brief hug as Marguerite hurried off.

I walked out of the door and within a few minutes, I had crossed the gate and was once again on the busy streets. The city had cobblestone pavements and old, ethereal edifices which unfolded for miles into the shadows.

A breath of the sea’s salt drifted in the air as people bustled around me, speaking in rapid French. The language presented its problems, I had to draw what I wanted every time I visited the supermarket while the grocer senselessly babbled in French. In a city of tourists, a dark eyed Indian with wavy hair wasn’t very remarkable. But Nice was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Putting away my thoughts, I mingled into the buzzing, sunlit street. Old buildings grew into the clear blue sky as I walked through the thin lanes. They looked down upon me merrily, deceiving no clue of what was to come.

                                                              ***

 

In the dark of the night, I followed Marguerite as she hurried across the street. It was fifteen minutes to midnight. I’d texted Inspector Caron some minutes ago. Everything would depend on him keeping time now.

City lights gleamed in the distance. Through long, winding lanes, I’d been shadowing Marguerite for nearly an hour. She had left the house, alone and almost hidden in a long brown coat. I could almost hear soft sobs as she buried her face in the coat, still walking on steadily.

Nightlife in the city was busy. I could hear small tremors of music booming in clubs miles away. But the mansion was stranded on an isolated road and only a few street lights lit up the darkness. Trembling, Marguerite walked away from the long pale, pale building, towards the garden. The light was on in the garage.

As she slipped through the door, I crept in behind her and slid behind long stacks of crates before the hanging bulb’s rays fell on me. Through the cracks, I saw a blonde man sitting on the wooden floor. Arches of the huge garage lay in shadows.  He thoughtfully gazed at the four portraits beside him. The Cora Patil paintings.

He jumped up as Marguerite came. ‘No time to catch up, dear.’ As he turned, his cold blue eyes struck me. They weren’t unlike Marguerite’s own, only harder.

‘Tell me where are the papers.’

Tears were trickling down her face. ‘I swear, I don’t know.’

‘I know you slipped into the room, that night.’

Marguerite shook her head. ‘I only entered the room when she lay on the floor.’ she whispered. ‘There were just a few words she could say to me.’

‘Tell me.’

Marguerite backed away. ‘Never,’ she cried. ‘Francois, you rogue of an uncle.’

Francois snarled. ‘I don’t have time for this.’

He walked back and pulled a figure out of the shadows. Marguerite shrieked. It was a strong boy of about seven with, deep red hair and pale eyes. He had long, muscled limbs. I finally knew who was the superhuman thief climbing the buildings.

Francois whipped out a knife from somewhere and pinned the boy under his elbow. ‘Speak. Or Nicolas dies.’ The blade inched closer to his thin neck as he fidgeted, incredulously looking up to his uncle. Francois grabbed him firmly.

Marguerite screamed.

‘I don’t want your pity,’ whispered Nicolas as the knife touched his skin. ‘Not from my mother’s murderer.’

Marguerite crumbled to the floor sobbing.

 ‘Don’t hurt him. All she said was, ‘Keep this painting safe. No matter what happens.’

She pointed to the painting stolen from Madame Annette, an oil work of a deep forest darkening into the shadows. Francois rushed over, muttering. ‘There’s a clue in this.’  

I glanced at my watch and finally crept to the door, kicking it hard as the bang resounded through the garage. Francois snapped around.  

I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew  time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath, ‘Ten, nine, eight, seven…’

The last few seconds bled away. The door burst open in his face and a stream of officers rolled in. Inspector Caron strode in with a gun and nodded towards me.

‘We got your message.’

‘Arrest Francois Marque for murdering his sister, Cora Patil and stealing her paintings.’ I called. Francois numbly stared at me as the officer handcuffing him pushed him out into the night, towards the blaring sirens.

The inspector looked at me, quizzically. He was with the two children behind and I walked to them, picking up Madame Annette’s portrait. I slipped the thick paper out of the frame and before Inspector Caron could protest, I’d torn through it.

As I’d expected, the front picture remained intact as the heavy back paper slid off.  I wiped away the hard glue.

A scrap of a paper fell out, titled ‘Will.’

‘I Cora Patil, in full control of my mental faculties, wish to bequeath my entire property to my daughter, Lisa Patil. I name my brother, Francois Marque, to have poisoned me and I write this in my last moments as all my organs fail internally. I hope to see justice done in court.’

The writing flickered off, growing hurried.

‘I’m not in a position to name an executer and with an attorney, comply to the state’s measures. But I assure you of the will’s originality…

The ink died away as a faint signature was scrawled in the end, undoubtedly minutes before the lady’s death.

‘I never knew,’ whispered Marguerite. ‘Uncle Francois had come to visit us that night and after he left, I’d heard a scream in Mama’s bedroom. If only I’d come faster, I would have known how Mama had hidden it.’

I put an arm around the trembling little girl. ‘You were only eight, Marguerite. And still so smart, you ran away when your uncle discreetly sold off the pictures online. To Madam Annette’s house, safeguarding the picture. You’re very brave.’

I looked to Nicholas, who was numbly staring at the paper.

‘Your uncle inherited your mother’s small fortune, but guessed something was wrong when your sister fled. Something with the pictures. You were the only weapon in his hand, and he trained you, fed you lies. Every note you left was for your sister, a childhood game only she would understand.’

Tears glimmered in the boy’s eyes as he nodded.

‘You had to try every picture, for Francois didn’t know which one Marguerite would be around But he knew she would come for you Nicolas, because she loved you.’

Nicolas suddenly ran outside, where Marguerite was standing in the dark.

Inspector Caron looked at me as we walked to the door. ‘I thought the notes were only diversions. How did you figure it out?”

I pulled out a piece of paper. ‘It’s a sequence,  adds one each time.’

‘Come children to clowns and the cats. Office, home, garage, we all have one.  By a circus which cannot afford midnight shows. Nor any chocolates, tarts, berries. Or any sort of fun at all. Now worst spirits will befall you, the lord will curse. Fears shouldn’t scare you my child, because dreams are realized.’

The inspector stared at the paper and his color changed. I could see he was impressed, a soft glow spread in my heart. This writing, and Marguerite’s teary expression had led me to deduce and solve the whole case.

Suddenly, my eyes fell on the scene outside and I nudged the inspector.

Outside, Nicolas was talking to Marguerite.

Under the starlit skies, the little boy wrapped his arms around his sister.

 

***

I submitted this story to Write India September 2015.

I did try to emulate the vibrant atmosphere of a foreign country and truly write a ”Mystery”.

Ah, but we vain writers will not stop trying in our quest to unique story telling.

-Me

Yet, I had a lot of fun with this story and I hope you did too! *crosses fingers.

Please show some love and share this. Share your thoughts, and I shall cherish the harshest critics!

Thank you so much! I hope to see you on my next post.

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