Claire emerged from a taxi in a tight black pencil skirt and black high heels as she walked into the upscale restaurant. She knocked on a door with a “espace de rangement” sign on display. The door opened to a nice looking man, impeccably dressed, and she could see her Godfather standing to greet her. He held his arms out for an embrace.
“My darling Bear, it is so good to see you alive and well.” He kissed both of her cheeks and looked her over for bruises. “Quite a scare you gave me yesterday.” He looked into her eyes, “did you arrange for the explosion? The news is reporting natural causes, a gas leak I believe.”
“Certainly not. I wouldn’t put the art at risk like that, besides, I could have done it in my sleep.”
“The news had video of you being rescued, quite terrifying. Do you know the man you were trapped with?”
“Yes, James Fraser. For twenty hours I laid on top of Jamie Fraser and found him to be quite charming and attentive.”
Javier Charvet laughed from his belly and looked at his men enjoying the humor. He pulled a chair out for Claire and sat down next to her. Someone spread a white cloth in front of him while Claire pulled a rolled canvas from her purse. Javier put white gloves on and carefully unrolled the painting where he could examine it under a high powered magnifying glass. He sat up and signaled to his man who left the room, presumably to initiate the transfer of the deed for the Italian property.
“Little Bear, what in God’s name is the Senator doing? I’m talking about his bid for governor announced today.”
Javier looked up with compassionate eyes. “You didn’t know. Has the bastard even called you yet?”
“Yes, yes, I got a call from Mary this morning.”
“And all this time I thought his name was Frank.”
“Mary is his secretary, like his right hand.”
“I know Bear, like I know what grades she got in middle school and that she is a lesbian. I was being sarcastic.”
Javier could see the pain on Claire’s face and backed off. “You must go, I understand. I will have the deed delivered to you in a few hours. Go out through the kitchen, Joseph is waiting to take you back.”
Javier Charvet was a best friend to Claire’s father until the day he died, along with her mother, in a car crash. He tried to get custody of little Claire, but her Uncle Lamb was a blood relative and the courts awarded custody to him. Javier continued to fight for her through the years they were in Egypt and South America, arguing it was no place to raise a young lady. Finally, when Claire was fifteen, the court let her decide where she wanted to live and she chose France with Javier.
Claire did not want to hurt Uncle Lamb, but she was ready to get out of the dirt and sleep in a regular house with indoor plumbing. The warm love and attention she received from Javier was an unexpected bonus and she blossomed under his care. Whenever he saw her, his face would light up and he would call her Claire Bear which was shortened through the years to just Bear. She stayed with Javier through graduate school, leaving for America when she was hired by University of Chicago. That was three years ago.
Claire sat back in the front seat and sighed. She was reeling emotionally after hearing Frank had announced his bid for governor. He never talked to her about it, come to think of it, he never talked about anything. Their relationship felt settled and comfortable from day one, like couples who had spent thirty years together. She couldn’t remember either of them doing anything romantic for the other and suddenly felt like crying her eyes out. What she needed was a day to be selfish and pretend she was someone else who wasn’t saddled with a flatline relationship. She directed Joseph to the retail district and blew him a kiss promising to find a safe way home. She wanted to be free for the next two days and that started with something fun and funky to wear tomorrow.
Javier assigned two of his men to investigate the Senator again. “Find out what projects have his support, who are the major players, who is backing his bid for governor. Find out what master he serves.”
The next day, Claire woke up excited to walk the Louvre. She straightened her hair and added some makeup before jumping into one of her new sundresses. She looked into the full-length mirror and giggled at the strange reflection. The top of the dress was fitted, connecting at the back of her neck leaving her shoulders bare. The skirt had yards of soft fabric that fell just below her knee and a studded belt. The dress was sunshine yellow with silver studs. Nothing could be farther from the tailored suits and conservative colors that filled her closets at home. She smiled and almost skipped out of the hotel to catch a taxi.
Jamie sat at the hotel pool sipping his coffee, and quietly losing his mind. The team spent seven hours yesterday pouring over every art theft attributed to Casper… again, and they had nothing. He took a deep breath and started making phone calls to those he served feeling like he would explode any minute. He had checked the airlines and knew there were no flights to Chicago until tomorrow, so she was still in town most likely. He exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. Fuck it, he thought, let's see if lightning will strike twice. He made his way to the Louvre.
Claire drifted happily through the museum walking close to the Virgin of the Rocks to examine the brush strokes. She jumped when someone spoke to her from behind.
It’s obvious there was a second hand, don’t you agree?”
Claire spun around to see Jamie Fraser smiling at her. There was initial surprise and happy excitement in her face which she covered quickly, turning back to the painting.
“I do not agree. I have always advocated a single hand and it’s the crazy conspiracy theorists who lead people down that road. You should know better than to comment on fine art, Mister Fraser.”
Jamie looked confused by her comment. “I beg to differ madam. I have an art degree after all.”
Claire giggled at the hurt look he concocted, “what kind of degree?”
When she turned back to him and looked up at his face, Jamie nearly forgot to breathe. “Nothing like yours and may I ask how you are allowed to walk the streets of an unsuspecting Paris? How many cars collided watching you walk down the sidewalk, hmmm?”
Claire was laughing at his charm and feeling flattered. “Suppose you do Paris a favor and walk with me?”
Claire looped her arm in his and they walked, admired the paintings, sat and discussed, joked and flirted for hours. Jamie’s knowledge of the masters was surprising and made for stimulating conversation. He had a profound appreciation for the art and artist, much like her own. After four hours they called it a day and went to find a sidewalk cafe for refreshment. Claire watched Jamie look through the three menus at the table and decided to be brave.
“Come on, handsome, this place is too boring.” She spun in the other direction as the wind caught the ample fabric of her skirt and teased it up until she could get a hold of it. They heard a loud crash as a driver struck a parked car and suddenly Jamie’s arm was around her waist pulling her along.
“I rest my case madam. Where is it we are going for more exciting refreshment?”
Claire was laughing at Jamie and feeling bad for the driver, “it’s close and you will love it because they have beer and volleyball outside. It’s quite popular in America.”
Jamie could not get the image of Claire’s legs out of his mind but dedicated himself to being less flirty with her. With a last look at her backside, he let his eyes follow the curves to her feet.
“I can’t believe you can walk the Louvre in heels.”
“I bought flat sandals for today but kept running into walls, so I went back to what I’m used to.”
“Thank God they don’t accentuate your statuesque figure, or perfect posture,” said rolling his eyes, making her laugh again.
She was so easy to talk to, and joke with, Jamie winced remembering her disarming banter in the Louvre that made him a slave to her enjoyment.
“Listen, Sassenach, I am sorry for the flirting, I lost my head with a very pretty girl, who is engaged to be married. I promise to behave like a gentleman while we have a beer and then see you home safely.
Right after this…” He pulled her to him and stuck his nose against her neck breathing deeply and releasing her instantly with a happy grin. “You smell like heaven lass.”
Claire was stunned by the cascade of feelings elicited by Jamie’s hug and the feel of his skin against her neck. When he released her she almost fell over, reaching for his arm to steady herself.
“That’s quite alright, it is a lovely scent.”
They entered a dark bar with a rousing crowd who were drinking the afternoon away. The beer was reviving while they talked about their time under the rubble and the mouse that ran up her leg. He asked about her lecture, fascinated by her travels to bring the love of art to the masses. She had been in more countries than he had and entertained him with anecdotes. Sitting in a booth gave her the freedom to look at his face, shoulders, and arms. He was dressed casually in jeans and a polo shirt that did little to hide his massive biceps and chest. She was careful to look discreetly until the second beer arrived which made it harder to pretend.
“Let’s watch the volleyball for a while, Sassenach, then I’ll see you back to your hotel.”
The fresh air helped to clear Claire’s head and she chose a team to root for. The game was fast and fun and she lost herself in the competition, slapping Jamie’s leg at times when her team scored. She didn’t notice how quiet he had become.
True to his word, Jamie was polite and attentive for the rest of their time together. Inside, he went to battle with the part of himself that wanted a girl like Claire and would be ruthless to win her. His decent side won, and he dropped her at her hotel before kissing her forehead and thanking her for a memorable afternoon.
Claire smiled and waved goodbye. Her glass face always gave the observer a look into her true emotion and Jamie saw her confusion and her interest. He needed to get out of Paris, first thing tomorrow. Go home to Scotland and forget about this time with the Sassenach. It felt like he lost a piece of himself today, a piece that remained with her. It made him feel empty inside.
Claire ordered food in her room and sat on the terrace, thinking about Jamie, Paris, and Frank. If he had given her his cell phone number, she would have called him and talked about her crazy feelings and desire for him. He mentioned the name of his hotel several times that afternoon. She tried to resist the seduction that played on a continuous loop in her mind. If only…
Jamie opened his eyes in a dark room when he felt his bed move and was instantly awake. He smelled her perfume and rolled toward the scent as she turned on a light. She was removing her shoes and then her belt and looked like she might join him in bed.
“Your dress lass.”
Claire twisted the button under her hair and pulled the dress over her head letting it drop to the floor. He pulled her to him and kissed her like his life depended on it. The kisses were sweet and long, building the fire she craved. For the next hour, he felt each curve, tasted every part of her, and pushed himself into her wet softness when she begged him to.
Claire walked naked to his room refrigerator where she stashed a bottle of champagne and a bowl of fresh strawberries. She pushed pillows against the headboard so Jamie could sit up and then straddled him, handing him a glass and placing a strawberry in his mouth. The ground rules were unspoken yet they both knew not to ask or comment on what this was. It just was.
“How is it you move through my door, room, and refrigerator without making a sound lass?”
“I’m a cat burglar,” said with honesty
Later Jamie led Claire to his outside patio with the lights of Paris spread far and wide. He danced with her, naked, holding her close, with a promise of more. Claire was very aware she was dancing with the enemy. The man was obsessed with bringing her down and his life was dedicated to that pursuit. None of it was lost on her so she lived each second with him. They made love once more and he gripped her to him as they fell asleep.
Claire looked up at Jamie’s window before getting into her cab. She would not see him again unless she made a mistake and he caught Casper. She wondered if she could walk away from stealing art for a man like Jamie. The answer was moot. It was the only thing that made her feel alive.
Later, Claire walked to the front desk to check out of the hotel. On her way to the exit, she felt someone pull her back and looked into the eyes of Jamie Fraser. He reached into her purse and pulled her phone out, punching in his contact information. He kissed her soundly and stroked her cheek.
“I still owe you a life Sassenach, and as I said, I’ll be the first one there.” He disappeared into the throng of people leaving the resort and Claire dropped into a couch to slow her racing heart.
Landing at O’Hare airport did wonders for popping the pink balloon Claire was in. She looked out at the familiar sights of home and Jamie Fraser was reassigned to the distant memory file in her mind. Like so many Sorority nights in her past. She felt strong and ready to tackle the remainder of the semester. When she saw Geillis she quickened her step and hugged her friend like her favorite puppy. The two women chatted while waiting for luggage and then heading home. When Claire walked into her townhouse Paris no longer existed. She was back.
Jamie had to get out of Paris before he lost his mind. Another failed attempt to catch Casper and a stunning girl left her mark on him and then disappeared. He made haste getting back to his farm in Scotland where the demands of the land would pull him back to normal. He assigned his top man to wrap up the investigation at Sotheby’s auction house and the report was waiting in is outlook when he got to Scotland.
The explosion was caused by a gas leak, the vault video was disabled by some sort of bright light beam, there were no fingerprints unaccounted for, and the handlers were questioned but added no clues. One female handler said she left the vault for a couple of minutes with Professor Beauchamp to find the audio technician and heard the auto-locking door to the vault slam behind her. As usual, Casper left no leads to follow and disappeared with a Rembrandt worth thirty million dollars. He had nothing.
Claire and Geillis wrapped up the semester in the final month. There were graduate dissertations to evaluate, term papers to read, and final exams to grade. It was a busy month and both looked forward to a summer off. Geillis would spend two months in her pool by day and the clubs by night. Claire would be away most of that time, lecturing, appraising, promoting her book, and stealing art.
She knew she had been in the game too long. Statistically, she was on borrowed time as a thief and when she was caught, she would lose her freedom for the next twenty years. Aside from quitting, she took every precaution including secure communication, the best VPN, encryption security, and a code translator that was owned by Javier because he commissioned the program. There were no back doors installed in the programming, verified by the best security experts in France. He named the program Tom, and no one knew why. Tom was installed on Claire’s home computer and on Javier’s, no one else would use it, see it in action, or ask questions about it. Claire’s heart jumped when she saw the message and she sent it to Tom. Thirty-six seconds later she read the message from Javier and smiled.
“Easy Peezy,” she said out loud as she sent a coded RSVP and agreed to the terms, one point five million in gold. The compensation received for her service had been routed to several off-shore accounts in the beginning and her wealth grew at a staggering rate. Cash felt like an anchor that would sink her in an investigation so she switched to valued properties that would be harder to discover. The gold would be kept in a bank vault locally and used for catastrophic expenses in the future, like hiring a team of defense lawyers. It would cost her two or three hundred thousand just to get it to Chicago, but she would pay it.
Her cell phone played Frank’s ringtone and she felt a boulder in her stomach.
“Hello darling, just touching base about this weekend. Do you have plans for us yet?”
“No Frank, you have not been home since the break started so I will consider you still gone until I actually see you.”
“Alright, fair enough. I have been invited to a private island, owned by a billionaire. The people that are funding my campaign have asked me to go. It almost sounds like a rite of passage kind of thing.”
“Well, best of luck with the upcoming test of manhood, or whatever it is.”
Claire trapped her lip between her teeth and was grinding on it as Frank talked. She was so mad at him and hurt by his estrangement. This was the time of year he spent in Chicago but he was still in Washington with his high-powered new friends that filled his calendar with things to do and people to meet. She tasted blood in her mouth and went back to her packing. Her flight to Germany left in twelve hours and it would be a tense few days once she got there.
Claire paid the admission to the Johannisburg Castle, host to the Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh exhibit. She played with the micro camera hidden in a broach and pinned to her sweater, the remote was deep in a pocket of her trousers. With luck, she would have clear pictures of the employee badges, the security cameras, and the exhibit hall by dinner. Tonight she would finish her fake statue of King Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun’s grandfather who guarded his tomb for millennia before it was discovered and plundered by archaeologists in 1922. The statue would not stand up to scrutiny, but she just needed a few minutes to get out of the building.
Claire plugged a USB into the back of the pendant and downloaded the pictures onto her laptop while the last coat of gold paint was drying on the little statue. She launched her graphics program and got to work, creating an employee badge that would pass at a glance.
Claire noticed the incoming handlers would have their badges scanned before coming into the castle. When leaving for the day, they were scanned to ensure none of the treasures were going home with them. Each piece in the collection was tagged with a liquid that emitted a dose of radiation high enough to be outside the normal range but low enough to be safe. She would skip the scanner and leave through the ceiling, like she came. By midnight, everything was ready, by tomorrow night at this time she would be one and a half million dollars richer.
Claire laid in bed, but sleep would not come. She reached for her phone, launching her contacts. For the hundredth time since leaving Paris, she looked at Jamie’s name and brought the whole evening back to her mind. It was such a sweet sadness that filled her, and each time she did this Frank became less and less important. In her dreams, she slept in Jamie’s embrace all night.