Galerie Charpentier is home to Sotheby’s Auction house in the center of the Parisian art world and host to almost eighty auctions per year. Art buyers worldwide watch for pieces to add to their collection and millions of dollars change hands as the gavel comes down on the final bids. A rare Rembrandt was up for sale today. One of three self-portraits done by the artist and the only one still in a private collection. The estimated price at auction is twenty-eight to thirty-five million dollars for the eight by twelve-inch painting. It will elevate any collection to new boasting heights and there is a lot of interest.
Jamie Fraser walked the halls of the auction house and checked in on his team trying to stay clear of buyers flocking into the building. He could care less about the art bought and sold today. He was here to catch a master art thief, his nemesis, who bested him at every turn. Jamie was number one in the world for profiling and catching the most accomplished thieves until he signed on to find Casper, the most prolific art thief in Europe. He was dubbed Casper because he came in and went out like a ghost, leaving nothing behind.
Jamie’s jaw clenched thinking of the many times he was closing in on his prey only to have him vanish with the prized art. This time was different, he could feel it. He was tipped off by a black-market snitch that told him the Rembrandt would be in play soon and that painting was being sold today. Casper had to be here, and Jamie would leave him crippled when he took him down. Payback for leading a merry chase for the past two years.
Jamie walked quickly toward the back entrance to verify the doors were locked. He was surprised to pass a large group of people in one of the auditoriums and glanced at the signboard, Doctor Claire Beauchamp, professor of fine arts, University of Chicago. By the size of the audience, she was quite popular. Jamie caught a glimpse of the striking professor in a body-hugging dress that she wore like a fashion model. Black rimmed glasses were perched on her nose above red lipstick and a pile of hair on top of her head that looked exquisitely messy. She pushed a coil of hair off her face and looked up at a huge screen, flipping slides with a remote control. One word came to Jamie’s mind; fascinating. His earpiece crackled and he spun around to head back to the front of the building.
Claire Beauchamp clicked for the next slide, clicked again, and again to no avail. She apologized to the audience and ripped her headset off to find some assistance. Five minutes later she was back to wrap up the lecture with the slides moving perfectly.
Jamie walked by the auditorium three more times as the professor worked her way through the questions, signed copies of her new book, and accepted the thanks of the Parisian art world. Jamie watched her, knowing the auction was underway and the clock was ticking on Casper’s entrance.
“Doctor Beauchamp, there’s a rumor you’re joining the team to catch Casper. Any truth to that?”
“Well, no. He has stolen pieces that I have a particular fondness for, and I would love to help catch him, but I have not been asked. It’s just a rumor.”
Claire shrugged her shoulders and smiled at the last of the people leaving. She stuffed her materials into her briefcase and took a deep cleansing breath. She had one more meeting and a plane to catch back to Chicago. She would give anything for a day to herself in Paris to wander around the Louvre and spend as much time as she wanted with the Masters. Maybe next time, she thought.
Claire emerged from the auditorium and made her way to the back entrance where she was allowed to park. She stopped abruptly and opened her case, smiling when she saw her headset tucked safely inside. She pulled the case up to secure the retaining strap and lowered her arm as the explosion blew her sideways, off her feet, and into a wall that was coming down. She could hear herself screaming until something heavy hit her on the head. Her screaming stopped.
Claire was vaguely aware she was laying in rubble from an explosion. The rubble was warm and had hands that held her upper arms, and a voice that kept asking if she was alright. She tried to lift her head and bumped it on something above her.
“What the bloody hell?”
Her hands were splayed on someone’s chest and she felt around deciding it was a male with a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger! Claire looked to her right and left seeing the tiny space they were pinned into and her heart pounded in her chest, feeling the claustrophobic fear that made elevators impossible.
“Jesus Christ, I have to get out of here, right now! Help me get out of here Mister, please!”
She felt the beefy arms wrap around her and hold her down making the panic even worse. Her wiggling made it hard to hear the man saying her name, getting more stern by the second. He finally held her tightly to him and warned her not to move.
“Doctor Beauchamp, Doctor Beauchamp, Claire! Stop moving! Something is holding the tonnage of walls, ceiling, and live wires above us. If you knock it loose it will kill us. Do you understand?”
Claire gripped his arms and panted from her attempt to escape. She listened to his voice calming her down and telling her to breathe with him. He was very encouraging and kept telling her they would be all right. He talked her down from a panic attack but kept his hands on her to be sure.
“May I call you Claire?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Alright, thank you. I need your help lass. Look around for something strong, like metal, a strong metal box, or something like that not connected to anything, free moving and about a foot tall. Do you see anything like that?”
“Why, for what?” Claire finally lifted her head a few inches and looked up at the man’s head, but it wasn’t there. A very large piece of the wall was suspended right above his throat and his head was on the other side of it.
“Oh my God, oh my God! Sweet Jesus, what are we going to do?” Her panic was rising again, and the arms came around her while the disembodied voice told her to breathe and keep her wits about her. It took several minutes but she finally gained control again and looked around for something strong with the limited space she had to lift her head.
“There are cinder blocks in the rubble, two of them are not touching anything. Will those work Mister?”
“Sorry lass, my name is Jamie, and those might hold this wall up long enough for me to scoot free of it. Can you move one, can you reach it?”
Claire could move the block slowly by stretching her arm until it hurt. Little by little she scooted the cinder block closer to the wall, muttering about a decapitated Arnold and she didn’t want to be alone. Jamie patiently calmed her reminding her to breathe deeply. He helped her push the block under the section of wall and patted her shoulder, thanking her for being so brave. Claire felt the man’s body scooting slowly, taking her with him an inch at a time until he was free of the would-be guillotine.
Jamie laid very still, trying to calm his racing heart. He could see what Claire could not and knew they were buried by at least twenty or thirty feet of debris. It would take hours for rescuers to find them if they ever did. Shafts of light were coming through, but those would disappear when the sun went down leaving them in complete darkness. Jamie felt a murderous rage boiling in his stomach.
“You fucking bastard,” was whispered through clenched teeth. “I will hunt you right into hell before I give up.”
“Who’s a bastard, who will you hunt, who’s going to hell?”
Claire was patting his arm trying to comfort the rage she felt in his tensed muscles. It scared her because she didn’t know this man. Jamie’s arms encircled her lightly for a few seconds.
“He’s called Casper and he’s a dead man walking because I’m gonna finish him when I find him.”
“Casper? The art thief did this?”
Claire got very quiet for a few minutes before asking, “who are you?”
“Jamie Fraser. I head up the task force trying to catch that piece of shit. Just so you know, we are getting out of here, one way or another, because I won’t let him win.”
He felt Claire shaking and heard her sniffling. He held her, feeling bad because he scared her. He lifted his head to look at her.
“I’m sorry lass, I didn’t mean to scare you. Look at me, Claire.”
Jamie wasn’t expecting the large whisky colored eyes and long black lashes wet from her tears. Her face stole his words for a moment, so he just looked at her. He wanted to touch her porcelain skin and feel the coils of curls that had fallen around her face and shoulders.
“I’m sorry Sassenach, rest now. It won’t be long.”
“Sassenach means crazy bitch, doesn’t it?”
Jamie laughed and Claire bounced on his stomach until she smiled too. “No. It means outsider. You’re a Brit, living in America, trapped in Paris, with a Scott,” he said laughing. He laid his head back down, “tell me about yourself, are you married? Any kids?”
“There is an offer on the table, but I haven’t decided yet. I like him fine but he’s a politician and I’m …not.”
“Tell me more. Why hesitate?”
Claire talked about the senator from Illinois who said he loved her and promised a life of excitement and purpose. Jamie listened to the story of two mismatched people and hoped she would choose herself over a man with plans to change everything about her. She couldn’t see that yet but to him, it was very clear.
“What about you when you’re not chasing a master criminal around the world?”
“I cannot say, it’s been too long. I asked a beautiful girl to marry me once and she said yes but she died in an automobile wreck before the wedding. I haven’t dated since then, about two years now.”
“I’m sorry for your loss Jamie, and if it hurts you, I’m sorry to bring it up.”
“I have never been to Chicago, what is it like?”
The conversation was interesting as they took turns asking questions about the other. Jamie was waiting for some sign, pounding, or yelling, that would indicate workers were close. He heard nothing so far and the light was fading in their rubble pocket. He prayed the night would not be terrifying to the woman on top of him.
“Can you sleep, Claire? I think you should try, it will make the time pass faster. Close your eyes and think about something you do at home for fun, breathe deep, that’s a good lass.”
Jamie could hear Claire’s breathing deepen into her slumber and he closed his eyes hoping to join her. He had a feeling it would be a long night.
Senator Randall was startled by a tap on his shoulder and a note passed to him by his aide. It said Doctor Beauchamp had not gotten off her plane from Paris and was not answering her phone. Frank nodded to the aide and gathered his papers into a case leaving the meeting as quietly as possible. He was calling Claire when the door closed behind him. No answer. Claire was reliable, punctual, predictable, and always called when her plans changed. He felt a nervous twitch in his stomach as his phone vibrated continuously with messages delayed while his phone was turned off. He read through the text messages quickly and was jogging to find his driver and get back to his office.
Claire’s secretary and friend had bombed his phone about an explosion at Sotheby’s, part of the building collapsed, and Claire had not boarded her plane. Frank was feeling a surge of anxiety that was quite unfamiliar and unwanted. He kept his life sterile and empty of drama so he could pursue what made him happy, successful, and energized. He barked at the driver to find a way out of the traffic and back to his office. He couldn’t wait. The laptop lid flipped open and Frank searched for news of the Sotheby bombing. It was all over the internet and the pictures of the damage almost stopped his heart. He started dialing for his aides, giving orders to find her, book a flight to Paris tonight, and get him an emergency number for who was in charge at the auction house. He walked briskly to his office followed by jogging aides handing him notes with flight times, and phone numbers.
“Thank God! Jesus yer hard to find Frank. Ye know whats happened at Sotheby’s. Claire didn’t check-in at the airport, she didn’t return her rental or check out of the hotel. I’m sorry Frank, she is unaccounted for and …”
Frank clicked off of the call when Geillis was mid-sentence. He couldn’t deal with her at the moment, and punched in the numbers to Sotheby’s but couldn’t get through. He assigned two aids to keep calling the emergency number until one of them got a person on the phone.
The sixty-inch television in his office was streaming news of the explosion and the missing Rembrandt painting that was discovered. The explosion was reported as a possible diversion so the thief could get away. One of the aides held her phone out.
“Senator Bradley, sir. He says you won’t answer your own phone and he needs to speak with you.”
“Hello, yes, no I can’t meet tonight, I’m flying to Paris, my girl…” Pausing to listen, “sorry Gary, I can’t, it’s an emergency. No, I won’t be voting tomorrow, I have an emergency, I have to …”
Senator Bradley could be heard from across the room making the aides press into the farthest point in the office to complete their tasks. Frank drew his arm back to throw the phone into the wall and someone shrieked and grabbed her phone away from him. It might cost her job, but this was her brand-new iPhone and no cranky senator was going to smash it to pieces. She headed for the door and disappeared.
“It’s the manager at Sotheby’s, sir. Please don’t break my phone.”
Frank dropped into his chair and reported the news of his missing fiancé, Doctor Claire Beauchamp from the University of Chicago. The manager wanted the name of her rental car company, hotel, and time of day she was last heard from. Frank gave him Geillis’s cell phone number adding she would be the point of contact. Tomorrow would be a ball-breaker and he needed someone attached to their phone in case any news came in.
Hours later, Frank laid in bed in the dark and thought about Claire. So many hours after the explosion and no word from her. He didn’t want to believe it but found little hope she was alive. He closed his eyes.
Claire was shifting her weight trying to get comfortable on the lumpiest mattress ever made. When she moved to her side Jamie’s eyes slammed opened and he groaned loudly from her hip crushing his balls. He lifted her hip and moved her over three inches letting his hands rest on her hip and leg. The dress she wore was knit and very soft. It had pulled up above her knee so Jamie pulled it back down.
He didn’t know Claire, and would never see her again once they were free, but he did not like hearing about her fiancé and that made him feel weird. He closed his eyes again.
“Jesus Christ! What is that?”
Jamie was yanked to the surface of consciousness by a loud and panicked voice coming from a wiggling woman trying to move up his body. His arms came around her and he shushed her, asking what was wrong.
“Something crawled up my leg and it had sharp claws, small sharp claws. I need to sit on your chest.”
Jamie grunted and held her still while he talked her down from another panic. He had worried about rats in the building being attracted to their smell. He told Claire to breathe with him while he stroked her hair in the pitch darkness. She had wiggled up toward his head and now her cheek was pressed against his, her mouth only inches from his. He could feel her relaxing and truly hoped for no more surprises tonight. He fell asleep with his arms around Claire.
Jamie opened his eyes when the noise of pounding pulled him back to consciousness. He felt Claire pressed against him, their faces touching, and the morning erection that threatened what little dignity he had left. He willed it away, quite unsuccessfully. The banging started again and he smiled to himself, it won’t be long before they are back on their feet, he thought. The pounding gave way to ripping metal and the distinct sound of a backhoe.
Claire moaned and moved to her stomach, rolling her face so her mouth was smashed against Jamie’s. He didn’t want to breathe for fear she would wake up and take her lips away. The noise from moving heavy debris got louder and the light from the new day flooded their pocket. Claire opened her eyes and screamed, pushing away from Jamie and hitting her head hard.
“What the bloody hell!”
“I’ll have you know madam that you accosted me just now, taking advantage of my inability to move and get away. This assault comes after you nearly strangled me getting away from a mouse.”
Claire rubbed her head and looked at the most beautiful face she had ever seen on a man. He could be a movie star with looks like that, she thought. Jamie was trying to look indignant but started to chuckle when her mouth turned into a smile. She looked adorable with a mass of curls pouring over her face as she felt for a bump on her head.
“Do you need me to rub it for you?”
The laugh that followed was genuine, feminine, and he loved hearing it.
“I’ll let you know if I want you to rub it.”
She laid her head on his chest and listened to the cavalry above them. “Sounds like they are making progress Jamie. I think you will soon be free of me.”
“Let’s hope it’s before I die of dehydration. I have never felt thirst like this in my life.”
With nothing to do but wait for the rescuers, they dozed and tried not to move too much. Through the early morning, the efforts above them intensified. The crew boss called a halt to the noise so they could get a radar fix on the heartbeats again. The radar technician moved his finger in a circle above their location and the infrared tech nodded his agreement. The noise continued.
“What is the first thing you want to do when we’re rescued?”
“Drink like an elephant.”
“How is that?”
“Someone hands them a hose and they use their trunk to place it in their mouth. An hour or so later, the elephant pulls it out.”
“I’m quite sure you made that up but it’s still funny.”
“It’s God’s truth, I swear. Next, I will jump into the hotel pool until my body temperature comes back to normal. You laying on me is like a giant quilt heating me through for the last twenty hours or so. What about you Sassenach?”
“I’m down for the elephant thing, and a bubble bath, while I pray there are no flights to Chicago today. I want to lose myself in the Louvre.”
“Your list is impressive but surely a phone call to the senator will be done first, even before you put the hose in your mouth?”
Claire was giggling at Jamie’s charm, “of course, the senator, and then the hose.”
“Your dress is so soft, I woke up petting it like a rabbit in the middle of the night.” Jamie ran his hands down her back for effect and then instantly dropped them to his sides while Claire laughed. He just wanted to make her laugh until they took her away from him forever.
“Don’t move Sassenach!”
“Why? Is something crawling on me?”
Jamie grunted when her knee made contact with his balls as she twisted to look for a bug, or worse.
“No, it’s a phone call is all.”
Jamie reached up and pulled a phone to his ear. He spoke to the rescue worker and described how they were trapped. The phone was then pulled upward through the remaining debris until it was out of sight.
“Wow, how do they know exactly where we are?”
Jamie watched her childlike wonder and smiled at her until the dangling section of wall that had been directly above his throat dropped onto the cinder block making a deafening noise. Claire screamed and held onto Jamie tightly. She buried her face in his chest and cried until he could calm her down again. Claire felt his hand stroking her hair, and his arm around her waist. It was so foreign to be held this way and she didn’t want it to stop but could not force more tears, so he let her go. Jamie smiled encouragingly at her and pointed to the crushed cinder block.
“You see, you saved my life. That means you’re responsible for me forever.”
“Wait. If I saved you, that means you owe me a life, I think.”
“I’m not quite sure about that. Maybe it’s like a debt that is paid by saving my life.”
Jamie took a chance and twisted his body and hers until they were lying side by side looking at the other.
“I don’t imagine a professor of fine arts and future first lady of the United States finds her life in peril much. But if you did, I will be the first one there Claire.”
She looked so innocent and beautiful looking at him. He seized her mouth and gorged himself on the beautiful professor. She turned her head for better access to his lips and he felt the exhilaration of her interest, however brief it would be. Aside from inhalation, the kiss continued until a large section that had them pinned was ripped away.
Claire sat up smiling at the men that surrounded them about ten feet up. She waved and stretched her back. A harness was lowered, held still by the men until she was safely in it. She pulled her briefcase strap over her head and was lifted through the debris to safety. Jamie watched her legs until she was pulled from his view.
Jamie looked up at the men, “any of the art stolen yesterday?”
“One small painting is all,” said with a heavy accent.
His stomach suddenly felt like a rock grinder. He asked the man, “quelle peinture?” The man shrugged his shoulders and looked around at the other workers until someone yelled “Rembrandt”. The sling was lowered again and Jamie was tempted to wrap it around his neck, but then Casper would win. He buckled himself into the harness.
Claire was loaded into an ambulance and whisked off to the nearest hospital. She gripped her briefcase and tried to calm her sense of shock at being thrust back into normality and away from Jamie. The EMT bent the straw top of a bottle of water and placed it in her mouth. She pulled the cool water into her mouth and thought about the elephants.
Claire was released by nine in the morning and now sat on her hotel bed with the phone in her hand.
“Sweet heavens, I am glad to talk to ye Claire, I haven’t slept a wink!”
“You are such a good friend Geillis. I tried to call Frank but his phone is off. Is he on his way to Paris?”
“No, he tried to leave last night but there’s an important vote today, it couldn’t be missed. What do ye need me to do? I already checked flights and they are booked today and tomorrow, even first class. I booked ye on United, leaving Paris at ten in the morning on Friday. All your appointments are canceled because ye were missin from a building that was bombed and I dinna ken if you were dead or alive.”
Geillis sobbed through the last part of the sentence and continued to cry until Claire calmed her down.
“I have quite the war story from the experience. I spent almost twenty-four hours laying on top of a giant Scot with a gorgeous face and bulging muscles.”
Claire giggled at Geillis’s reaction, knowing her friend would find that part of the tragedy delicious. After the call, Claire pulled her filthy clothes off and dropped them in the wastebasket. Flipping the security bar on the door meant she would be undisturbed while she scrubbed the dirt away. Sinking into the hot fragrant bubbles, she exhaled and thought about the rest of her day. She would meet with her client later and conclude their business and then tomorrow was all for her. The silver-lining as it were.
The exquisite bed in Claire’s room was so expansive one might miss the 8x12 inch Rembrandt in the center. Soon it would be handed over to the client in exchange for a deed to an Italian property valued at three million dollars. All in a day’s work.