Noir (5/7)

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Joel McNamara nee Francois Dujardin, stared at Alex, confusion etched across his handsome face.

The antithesis of Alex Ryder, Francois Dujardin was the consummate European gentleman, with attractive soft features, that made him more beautiful than handsome.

A strong patrician nose, high brow and luscious, wavy brown hair perfectly complemented the square jaw that had just the right amount of scruff.

He was impeccably dressed for a man on the run, with an expensive dark brown waistcoat, that contrasted well against his bone white dress shirt. The trousers matched the cut and colour of the waistcoat, and Francois had added a turquoise kerchief to the breast pocket.

In his frozen right hand, was a French crime book by Pierre Lemaitre, whilst his left hand grasped a Cabernet.

The differences between the gaunt Alex and the healthy Francois was like making a comparison between charity and welfare.

The only similarity they shared, were the intensity of their eyes, Francois’ sapphires matching the piercing quality of Alex’s emeralds.

“What the hell do you want?” shouted Francois with indignation, as he placed the book and wine glass down gently on a table to the side of the luxurious bed.

Alex looked at Francois coldly.

“A View of Auvers-sur-Oise, if you don’t mind.”

Francois’ eyes widened further, and he gasped “How do you know?”

“A goddess showed me.” said Alex drily.

Merde.” whispered Francois under his breath. Recovering from his shock, Francois tried to re-establish the equilibrium.

“You have me at a disadvantage, Mr …. Ryder was it? If you don’t mind, starting from the beginning, as to how you found me, and who sent you, I would much appreciate it.”

Francois looked at Alex’s expression and hastily added “I won’t run, I swear.  You’ve caught me. I just want to know who sent you.”

Alex relented, but he kept his guard up, worried that Francois was hiding some kind of weapon in the drawer next to him.

“Eveline Winston.”

“Eveline …” whispered Francois. “Of course …”

Francois leapt off the bed and advanced towards Alex. Alex held his ground, prepared for an attack.

But instead Francois took him by the shoulder and urgently asked. “Is she alright? The Jackal hasn’t killed her yet has he?”

That’s the name of the mercenary thought Alex.

“No. She’s safe.”

“Thank God.”

An awkward silence descended on the room. Francois looked away from Alex’s unwavering gaze and began to pace the room. Alex, on his part, stayed silent, preferring to sweat Francois.

After what seemed like an age to Francois, he seemed to arrive at a decision and looked directly back at Alex.

“Do I have your word, you will not harm me if I show you the way?” implored Francois.

“Depends on whether you actually have it or not.” replied Alex.

“Believe me I do. It’s not here. I’ve hid it somewhere close and safe. But I can tell you the whole story behind this accursed Cezanne.” said Francois ruefully.

Alex checked his watch. He wanted to get Francois back towards Eveline, but a part of him wanted to hear the story of one of the most daring art thefts before the turn of the century. Giving in to his curiosity, Alex grabbed a chair from a baroque desk and motioned Francois to sit on the bed in front of him.

Francois, confused, sat down and was astonished when he heard the words; “Go on. Tell me.”

Francois found himself resisting at first, after all, who was this stranger to demand such information from him? But suddenly the urge to boast and tell a story he had kept hidden for years overtook him.

He had kept it within him for so long. It needed an appreciative audience. What better audience than the man who managed to crack and solve the secret vault he had made? Any man who had worked out his Venus de Milo secret was worthy of this tale.

But more importantly, it would also buy him time to formulate an escape plan. The private investigator may have earned his respect, but he would never deserve the prize.

Francois grabbed the Cabernet from the desk, swirled it in his mouth and swallowed. His voice was deep, articulate and wistful.

“I was much younger then. Younger and more skilled. By the time I was 25, I had already stolen lesser art from 7 museums around Europe. The papers called me le renard. For a time, I was famous. Everyone was looking for me, but none ever came close. I miss those days still.”

Francois saw the intent concentration on Alex’s face and knew he had him captive.

“But I longed for a bigger prize. My collection was not complete, without a master’s work. I love art, you see. I steal art because I obsess over them. I still remember being entranced by a lesser artist when I was much, much younger. I loved the brushwork, the serenity that comes with staring at a beautiful picture. My cravings only demanded more, after I stole my first one. I couldn’t stop at one painting. I need more to fill my bare private room.”

“It was then, I heard about a Cezanne being exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford University. The wonderful Paysage d’Auvers-sur-Oise. My collection was crying out for a landscape and a Master. This ticked all the boxes.”

Francois’ voice dropped slightly. He was walking down memory lane now.

“So I flew to England, along with two of my crew. Throughout our entire career, nothing had ever gone wrong. We didn’t use guns. We didn’t knock out guards. We went in, sliced the paintings out the frames and went out, with people none the wiser.”

“Security in the 90s could be defeated easily. I mean they let terrorists onboard planes with guns, so why wouldn’t they let a man with a box cutter into a museum?” laughed Francois.

Sipping his wine, Francois felt himself come alive as he relived the fateful night.

“This job was probably the easiest thing we had ever done. It was like stealing candy from a baby. We could not have found an easier mark. Everyone was out, celebrating the turn of the century. It was New Years Eve …”

“This gave us cover and would overwhelm the security guards. The Ashmolean at the time, was also undergoing repair works. So there was a scaffolding that we could climb to get to the roof.”

He paused, a smile creeping across his face. Alex stared intently at Francois, mentally matching the plan he had read on the Excel sheet to what he was hearing.

“We left our safehouse at 11pm, and took the bus to Oxford. Have you ever been Mr Ryder?”

“No? It’s a lovely campus. Lots of gorgeous old buildings and green grass everywhere. No matter where you look, it’s impossible not to be distracted by the history on display.”

“The Ashmolean Museum is equally attractive. I must say, whenever I think about iconic Museum designs, I always revert to that place. The walls, the columns, the frames they use … are exquisite. It’s the classic museum. If there were pictures in dictionaries, the Ashmolean would be next to the word museum.”

“But I’m getting off topic … forgive me. Where was I?” asked Francois, to the silent Alex.

“Oh yes … we were mingling with all the university students who were out and about ready to celebrate the New Year. We had all our equipment in our bags. We didn’t need much. Just a good hammer, a pick, a sharp Stanley knife, a rope ladder and a flashlight. One of my crew managed to source a smoke grenade from a mate of his in England. You know, those surplus stores?”

“Anyway, we partied with everyone else, and had a good time. We were meant to blend, and my God, did we blend. I think we all drank a bit too much. But it didn’t stop us.”

“At exactly 11.45, we made our way to the scaffolding, after jumping the fence. There were crowds of people everywhere, so no one noticed we were gone.”

“One of us stood guard outside, while the other guy would support me, as I made my way down through the skylight via the rope ladder. There was a very convenient air-conditioning unit that we tied the ladder to, so that made our life even easier.”

Francois’ voice was picking up in speed, his body excited to be reliving such drama.

“Boom!” exclaimed Francois with glee.

“We smashed the skylight with our hammer when everyone was lighting their fireworks. My comrade lit the smoke grenade and threw it inside. The smoke would obscure my movements, my face, the alarms and the cameras. I had walked the Ashmolean a hundred times before, so the moment my feet touched the ground, I knew exactly where to go.”

Francois mimed his movements.

“I ripped the painting off the wall and smashed the frame on the ground. This popped the priceless Cezanne right out from the frame and I barely had to cut anything.”

“Alarms were going off, but I didn’t care. Our plan was flawless. People who saw the smoke would assume it was a fire. Fireworks and crowds would delay the security response and cover all our noise.”

“All I had to do, was literally shove the painting in a large briefcase, clip it to my belt and climb up the ladder.”

“The whole job, took me 3 minutes. It was flawless. A masterpiece of thievery” exclaimed Francois.

“Security had no idea who or where we were. By the time they investigated and found out what we had done, we were already on a bus back to our house. We disappeared into the crowd, like a fox before dawn.”

Francois sat back and finished his Cabernet, a smug smile on his handsome face.

“It was that simple. 3 minutes was all it took for a Cezanne to end up in my hands. I often think back to that night and truly the stars aligned for me. It seemed like fate that, that Cezanne would end up in my possession.”

Alex sat back and evaluated the vain, arrogant Frenchman before him. A reality check was needed.

“So why do you want to sell it to the Jackal? What happened to you?”

Francois turned away in disgust, shame suffusing his face.

“One of my crew ratted me out. The cowardly bastard revealed where I was. The Jackal tracked me here. He was the one who killed Candice because I … messed up.”

“How?” asked Alex with more concern than he wanted to admit.

“You saw the CCTV footage on the SD card yes? We met, but I didn’t bring the painting. I thought I could fool him. I bought a poster instead.” groaned Francois.

“He saw through my stupid ruse straight away, he told me that I could either bring the real Cezanne, or watch another one of my girls die.”

“Eveline.” whispered Alex.

“Yes. Candice died because of my miserable stupidity.” breathed Francois. Anger ran across his blue eyes as he paced the room furiously.

“I refuse to see Eveline die for another one of my mistakes. The Jackal, gave me two weeks to bring the painting. But I need the SD card that I hid in my Venus. Unfortunately, I have been unable to go home, because of the murder case built against me.”

“But …” Francois continued “You saw it didn’t you? Do you have that card with you?”

“No” admitted Alex. “But I made a back-up.”

“Please, show me.” implored Francois.

Alex paused a beat, considering his options.

“No.” said Alex coldly.

Francois stared at Alex incredulously.

“No?”

“Not until you come with me, to meet Eveline. Then, we shall hunt for the Cezanne.”

“Wouldn’t that just put her in more danger?” asked Francois.

“If you love her, you’ll protect her.” replied Alex, struggling to keep his own feelings in check.

Francois sighed. “Very well. Let me get my coat.”

Alex waited, and without losing sight of Francois, he texted Eveline.

MEET ME ON COLLINS ST AT THE DOME. I FOUND HIM. 7PM.

Francois, now layered up with a long coat, walked out in front of Alex, and they both bid farewell to the Pink Palace, as Francois fired up the gold Renault and drove to the city in silence.

Pulling up into the central business district, Alex noted that the rain that had plagued him this entire case was still prevalent, its’ rhythm forever etched into his mind, as he looked up and down Collins street, wary of Flat Cap and Liverpool. There were hundreds of people everywhere, most of them eager to get home and out of the rain.

All sorts of colours were represented by umbrellas, as they bobbed up and down, weaving to and fro, avoiding people, avoiding other umbrellas and street furniture.

A tram buzzed past the pair of them, its’ plaintive bell pealing at jay-walkers who crossed the street with reckless abandon. Taxi cabs honked at each other, as a poor newcomer to the Melbourne struggled with the concept of hook turns at a busy intersection.

The Dome on Collins St, was an architectural marvel. The mosaic-tiled floor, was already arresting enough, but it was the Domed Chamber that stole the breath away, with its Baroque and Italianate elements, the arches, windows and pillars cascading together to create elegant, intricate symmetry.

Beneath the natural shafts of dying grey light that came through the windows, stood Alex Ryder and Francois Dujardin, two men whose fates were now connected by a woman and a painting.

As they waited to the side of the main doors, Alex kept a watchful eye on the elegant surroundings; the distinctive flooring of the Dome issuing a sharp clacking noise as women in heels strutted past the pair.

The distinctive soundscape soon became mundane, as Eveline walked in from the other side of the Dome, her beauty apparent, as yellow lights from old-fashioned lamps reflected across her pale skin.

Francois’ breath caught in his throat, while Alex did his best to control his jealousy. The night of passion they shared must have meant little to her, as she walked towards them, her blue eyes fixed on Francois.

Francois ran towards her and held her tight, her arms wrapping tightly around his torso, as they hugged under the Dome. Alex noted that the kiss was equally rapturous.

They make a beautiful couple thought Alex traitorously to himself. He allowed himself a rueful smile, and began to mentally shove his feelings into a box, to be processed later or perhaps even better, never.

Francois turned back to Alex and and motioned, without letting go of Eveline’s hand.

Alex wordlessly handed over his phone. Francois smiled in triumph as he opened the excel sheet that he had designed, before glaring at Alex to step back.

Alex hesitating, relented and stood out of earshot.

Francois turned back to Eveline, and began to whisper urgently, not knowing that Alex had activated a voice-recorder on his phone and was currently listening via a bluetooth headset.

“I created this map years ago, using a simple encryption system, that only I know. I didn’t trust my comrades back then, but I trust you, Eveline. I am so happy that you are not hurt. I’m truly sorry that I bought you into this whole mess of mine.”

Eveline, nodded, not trusting herself to say anything.

“This is the key to this map, all you have to do is remember’s Caesar’s Box. Always place everything in 4 grids and it is very easy to solve. OK? Now, we have to lose this detective. You must come with me. I can take you to the painting and we can run away together my sweet.”

Eveline looked over at Alex, who was looking back at her, with an open expression. She tried to convey something to him, but it was futile.

Looking back at Francois, she nodded.

“What should we do?” she whispered.

“Distract him, then run out the door. I will have the car ready for us.” promised Francois.

Eveline nodded and was about to walk over to Alex, when he held up a hand and tapped the headset to the side of his head. They both stared at him, shocked.

Alex smiled coldly at the pair before running out, shoving the great doors open and disappearing into the street.

Francois swore and grabbed Eveline, and they ran out, but it was too late. Alex had already disappeared into the rush-hour crowd.

Author’s Note

This was difficult. You take 2 days off from the story and suddenly you feel like your writing is awful.

When your hand is off the rhythm, suddenly a lot of things don’t flow, and your morale takes a hit.

It wasn’t until I reread and edited certain parts, I actually realised, that it wasn’t as horrible as it seemed.

I apologise for the delay in the delivery of this part. But I got my hand back on the throttle and things should be a bit quicker now.

The main focus of this part was to flesh out the main antagonist, and make him oddly endearing. Francois turned out to be a very difficult character to write, as I wasn’t quite sure how to make his dialogue smooth.

But I tried and I keep forgetting that this is my first attempt to write a short story in a very long time. It’s not meant to be perfect. It’s just designed to get me writing again, consistently and fluidly every day.

So apologies if the quality of each part varies a lot from shite to decent, and then back to shite again.

~ Damocles. 

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