Thief of hearts, p.12
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       Thief of Hearts, p.12

           L.H. Cosway
 
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  Stu didn’t respond, instead he turned and left the room, his shoulders drawn tight. He was angry with me, that much was clear. But what else could I do? We weren’t Bonnie and Clyde. As far as I was concerned, the world of theft and art heists was the stuff of movies and crime novels. It wasn’t real, not to someone like me.

  And it certainly wasn’t a world I ever wanted to be in.

  Twelve

  Stu didn’t return to class that afternoon, his empty desk a stark reminder of what he’d revealed to me earlier in the day. I could still hardly believe it, and I had so many more questions. Like, did he know I had money troubles before he’d chosen to befriend me? And what exactly did this robbery entail? Who was he stealing from, and where?

  The fact that he’d targeted me, that he’d known who I was before we’d even met made me feel vaguely ill. Of course, I couldn’t deny that the idea of being debt free, of being able to live my life without bills and constant repayment worries, sounded like heaven. But it wasn’t as though I could just randomly pay off my debts without explaining where my sudden windfall had come from.

  It just seemed like so many details of his proposal hadn’t been thought through.

  As though to punctuate my current situation, I arrived home to find a money collector standing on my doorstep. He was tall and broad, wearing a brown leather jacket and worn jeans. I couldn’t tell what age he was from behind, but if I were to guess I’d say late forties. I hid behind the bushes out front (not my finest moment) as he lifted the knocker and continually banged on the door. Alfie was clearly ignoring him, though he wasn’t known to answer the door to strangers, especially ones who looked like this.

  I walked to the end of my street and waited until he was gone. I only made a move after he pulled away in his car, looking pissed that he hadn’t gotten to speak to anyone.

  “Andie! There was a man at the door for over twenty minutes, and he looked shifty. He shoved this through the letterbox before he left,” said Alfie when I finally entered the flat. He handed me a sealed envelope with my name on it. I didn’t have to open it to know what kind of threats lay within.

  “It’s okay. Nothing for you to worry about,” I said as I tiredly made my way into the kitchen. Alfie watched as I poured myself a glass of wine then took a seat by the counter. I was exhausted. This day felt like it was never going to end.

  “It was a money collector, wasn’t it?” said Alfie, his voice soft. “I’m not stupid. I know what they look like. Do you need a loan? I can give you some money when I sell my next painting if you need it.”

  “No, Alfie, this isn’t your problem,” I replied. “It’s mine. I’ll figure something out.” Alfie’s rent money already came from his painting sales, so I wouldn’t dare ask him for more. He had to live, too.

  “But how? Aside from winning the lottery, there isn’t much you can do.”

  “I know,” I said, staring glumly into my wine glass. “I know.”

  “What about your parents? Surely they must have some money set aside.”

  I shook my head. “They’ve already given me a lump sum. I won’t ask them again.” Stu’s voice echoed in my head, his offer sounding more and more appealing by the minute. If only it didn’t frighten me so much.

  “You’re thinking of something. What is it?” said Alfie, his gaze perceptive.

  I slid my eyes to his, chewing on my lip as I considered telling him everything. In the end, I went with, “I had a weird day.”

  “How so?”

  “You remember my new student?”

  “You mean the one you disappeared from Jamie’s shop with on the weekend? Don’t think he didn’t fill me in.”

  I shook my head. Those two were like a pair of gossiping old ladies sometimes. “He invited me to his brother’s birthday party. I didn’t want to be rude.”

  “He’s your student, Andie. It’s not rude to refuse an offer like that. It’s called being professional.”

  I scrunched my face up at his disapproval, feeling sorry for myself when I blurted, “There’s more to it, you know. He befriended me for a reason.”

  It must’ve been the wine giving me loose lips. The alcohol was hitting me hard because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The whole thing at lunch sort of stunted my appetite. “It was all because he wanted to meet you. He was using me.”

  Saying the words made it hurt more. My chest felt strangely empty and I realised just how much I’d enjoyed Stu’s interest. It had awoken something in me both old and new, something I didn’t think existed anymore. Now I knew it was all an act. Of course it was. I was such a fool, blinded by his handsome face and smooth come-ons. Stu must’ve thought I was completely naïve falling for his charms, especially since all the while he had an ulterior motive.

  Picking up my wine glass, I downed the rest of its contents and poured myself another.

  “I don’t understand,” said Alfie, his voice wary. “Why would he want to meet me?”

  “Because he wants you to paint him a replica. A piece he can use in a robbery. And he knows about my debt, that’s why he wants me to help him. He’s trying to tempt me with the prospect of being able to pay it all off. You were right all along. I should’ve listened to you. He wasn’t to be trusted, but like a naïve fool I let myself believe he was a genuine person.” That he liked me.

  I was rambling now. Alfie straightened on his stool, his posture stiff as he eyed me. “Okay, Andie, start from the beginning and leave nothing out. I want to know everything he said, word for word.”

  So I told him about Stu’s proposition. When I was done we both fell silent, lost in a sea of our own thoughts. I had no idea what Alfie was thinking, but then he finally spoke. “I have to tell you something.”

  I eyed him, curious. “Go on.”

  He let out a long breath and reached for the wine, pouring himself a glass. It was unlike him because he didn’t usually drink, which made me wary of what he was going to say.

  “Do you remember when we were teenagers and my dad lost all his money?” I nodded. “Well, after Mum threw him out she was beside herself because we were going to lose the house. Then she remembered my talent for forgery and talked me into painting a piece that we could sell. I was young and impressionable, and Mum had me convinced we’d be living on the streets if I didn’t do it, so I agreed.”

  I stared at him, speechless. “How come you never told me?”

  Alfie took a long gulp of wine. “I was afraid you might tell someone and that Mum and I would get sent to prison—”

  “Alfie, I’d never—”

  “I know you wouldn’t, but I’ve always been such a worrier. In the end we only sold three paintings, but it was enough to save the house. That’s why the Rembrandt you took for your bedroom is stretched on wood that dates from the seventeenth century. I used to practice with all sorts of materials to try and create pieces that could pass for the real thing. There are so many details that could expose art as fake and you have to know every single one.”

  “I . . . I don’t know what to say,” I breathed, astounded. It was like he’d lived a secret life I knew nothing about. I was starting to wonder if today was just one bizarrely surreal dream.

  “I only created the art. I never had any contact with the dealers. Mum took care of all that. I still have no idea who she used to sell the paintings to, but she knew a lot of wealthy people from the years she spent married to dad, attending galas and company parties. Maybe one of them was the guy Stu met in prison, or someone he knows. It would explain how he knew who I was. I’ve always worried those paintings would come back to haunt me one day and now they have.”

  I placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, not knowing what to say. Another long few minutes of silence passed between us. We were both lost in thought again.

  When Alfie spoke he sounded nervous. “The man who came knocking today, he didn’t look friendly.”

  “No,” I said in agreement. “I don’t imagine he did.”

  “He
s going to come back.”

  “I know.”

  “And when he does, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone just as scary on our side, someone like Stu Cross.”

  At this I swivelled to face him. “What exactly are you suggesting?”

  “Okay, don’t go crazy but I’m . . . I’m suggesting we do it.”

  I opened my mouth to speak, to ask if he was on crazy pills, but he held up a finger to shush me.

  “Let’s face it, Andie, on your salary you’re going to be an old woman before you pay off all that money, and the interest is just going to keep piling up and up. I don’t want that life for you, always looking over your shoulder for dodgy loan sharks. And besides, I’ve already pulled this off before. It meant my mum and I weren’t thrown out onto the streets. If this time it means you won’t have to file for bankruptcy then I’ll paint whatever he wants, but I won’t let you help him with this robbery. In exchange for the replica, he’ll give us enough to pay off your debt, and the money will be considered payment for my artwork. We have plausible deniability. All I know is that a patron contracted me to complete a piece. I don’t know anything about a robbery and neither do you. It’s foolproof.”

  “Alfie, I’m not sure it’s going to be that simple.”

  “If he wants me to work for him then he’s going to have to make it so.”

  His confidence bolstered me slightly. Trust my cousin to find strength in the surreal, while normal, everyday occurrences scared him half to death. I stared at him for a long moment, trying to figure out if he was really serious about what he was saying. His brown eyes met mine, never flinching.

  Crap, he was serious.

  “Let me sleep on it,” I said, trying to buy myself some time.

  “No, call him now. Tell him to come here and we’ll discuss the particulars.”

  “Alfie, slow down. I haven’t decided if I want to do it yet. I need to think everything through first.”

  “If we leave it until the morning I’ll change my mind, I know I will. I’m always far more adventurous at night. So please, call him. Otherwise I’ll lose my nerve.”

  Swallowing a mouthful of wine, I replied, “I don’t even have his number.”

  “There must be a way for you to contact him. Does he have an email?”

  I snorted, amused by the idea of Stu Cross having an email account. Even in this day and age, he didn’t seem like the type. Then I remembered we were friends on Facebook. Without thinking I pulled out my phone, logged in and shot off a message.

  Andrea Anderson: Can you come by my flat? We need to talk.

  It was probably a silly idea. I mean, I doubted he even used the account that much, let alone checked his messages. But then, to my utter surprise, after a couple of minutes I got a response. My palms grew clammy, mostly because I really hadn’t expected him to reply.

  Stu Cross: On my way.

  My heart started to pound, and my lips became dry as the reality sunk in.

  “He’s coming over,” I told Alfie, my voice more air than sound.

  He nodded, sounding almost as nervous as I did. “Good. This is good.”

  “I’m going to take a shower.”

  Knocking back the last of my wine, I went inside the bathroom and shut the door. Standing under the warm spray, I endeavoured to scrub away my misgivings. If Alfie, a man who was literally paranoid about everything and trusted no one, thought this could work, then maybe it wasn’t so far-fetched.

  After I’d scrubbed my skin raw, I got out and dried off, hearing a knock on the door as I slipped into my bathrobe. He was here. My pulse sped up again.

  Alfie let him in, and I heard a murmured conversation going on as I stepped out into the living room.

  “Andrea,” said Stu, his gaze moving from my wet hair, down my bathrobe-clad body before coming back up to my face. I had to wonder what was with the small backpack he had with him.

  “Andie’s filled me in on your proposal,” said Alfie, his arms folded as he took a seat on an armchair.

  “Right,” Stu replied, nodding as his attention moved back and forth between the two of us. He looked like he thought he was being ambushed, like maybe the police were going to spring up from behind the sofa.

  “Sit, please,” Alfie went on, gesturing to the couch. Stu sat and I went to perch on the edge of Alfie’s armchair.

  “We’re prepared to help you, but first, we have a few conditions.”

  Stu gestured with his hand. “Go ahead.”

  “My conditions are as follows: One, I’ll complete the painting but Andie is to have no part in the robbery. Two, you’ll pay me a pre-agreed-upon sum for services rendered. You’ll act as my patron and I your artist. As far as anyone else is concerned, I know nothing about what you intend to do with my work. Three, once the transaction is complete, you’ll leave us alone. We don’t want to see you ever again once all this is over and done with.”

  A trickle of unease hit me at the idea of never seeing him again.

  No, Andie, that is a good thing. Stu Cross is not healthy for you.

  Stu raised an eyebrow. “That it?”

  Alfie nodded, his expression stoic.

  “Well,” Stu began, “if Andrea isn’t helping me with the job, then she won’t get any money, and what I’m prepared to pay you for your work will be a fuck of a lot less.”

  “How much are we talking?” asked Alfie.

  “A hundred K.”

  “What!” I exclaimed, my mouth falling open. “Just how much is this painting worth?”

  Stu looked to me, his eyes falling to my chest where my bathrobe revealed a hint of skin. I quickly shifted it higher, trying to ignore the goosebumps his attention brought on.

  “The Duke’s buyer is prepared to pay a mill for it. I get £200,000 and my family’s safety, you get £100,000, and the Duke gets the rest.”

  Alfie snickered a laugh. “I’m sorry, but the Duke? I thought this couldn’t get any worse and then you go and throw a nickname like that into the mix.”

  Stu just stared at him, giving no discernible reaction to his amusement.

  “So,” my cousin continued, “a million pounds, eh? What painting exactly am I supposed to be replicating?”

  “A Rembrandt,” said Stu. “I hear he’s your speciality. The painting’s called The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

  Alfie barked a laugh. “I think someone’s been pulling your leg, darling.” Stu raised an eyebrow at the endearment. My cousin was totally channelling Jamie right now. Maybe that’s where his confidence was coming from. “That piece has been missing since 1990, after it was stolen from the Steward Gardner museum in Boston. It’s one of the most notorious art heists in modern history.”

  “Yeah, but that’s just the thing,” Stu replied, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. “We’re not stealing it from a museum. We’re stealing it from the person who has it now.”

  Alfie’s mouth shaped into a grin. “The plot certainly does thicken. You do realise that the FBI has been hunting down the thief for over two decades? I mean, people have written books about this robbery. Are you entirely sure this isn’t another fake?”

  “Look, mate, I’m just a bloke doing a job for another bloke. I don’t know shit other than how I’m gonna steal it. After that, my work is done. I could give two fucks if it’s the genuine article or not. And look, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m too thick to pull this off.”

  “On the contrary,” Alfie cut in. “In spite of what Hollywood would have us believe, the majority of art thefts aren’t undertaken by sophisticated criminal masterminds with dapper fashion senses, but quite the opposite. In fact, a lot of these thieves know little to nothing about art. They do it for the money. Take the Stewart Gardner robbery for instance. The robbers actually cut the paintings from their frames. Cut them from their frames! Anybody with a love or appreciation for art would never dream of doing such a thing. There were also far more valuable pieces they could’ve taken, which indi
cates they were either working with a shopping list of sorts, or they didn’t actually know what they were looking at. The latter being more likely. So, when you think about it you’re a perfect fit.”

  Stu frowned at him, his mouth set in a firm line. “You know what, I can’t tell if you’re trying to reassure me or mugging me off.”

  “Neither. I’m merely trying to inform you of the facts.”

  I turned to my cousin, wanting to know more. Admittedly, I’d never heard of this notorious robbery, but then again, art was Alfie’s field. “What do the authorities know about the people who originally stole it?”

  Alfie rubbed ponderously at his chin. “If memory serves me correctly, the thieves entered the museum dressed as police officers and stole thirteen pieces altogether. The empty frames that the paintings were cut from still hang on the museum walls. When Isabella Gardner, the owner of the museum, died, she put it in her will that if any of the art was ever changed, the entire museum would be handed over to Harvard for liquidation, hence why they remain in place.”

  His words caused my skin to prickle, the significance of it, the history. Alfie levelled his gaze on Stu. “What I want to know is, who has the Rembrandt now, and how exactly do you plan on stealing it?”

  Stu cocked an eyebrow. “You said you wanted nothing to do with that side of things, so maybe you should just focus on your part of the job.”

  “But don’t you want my advice? Not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty much an expert in this field. I can point out the holes in this plan ‘the Duke’ has given you.”

  Stu eyed him dubiously. “You ever stolen before?”

  “Well, no, that’s not what I meant. I’m not an expert in thievery, but I am an expert in people who appreciate art because I’m one of them. The person who owns this painting must surely be an art lover to risk imprisonment just to own such a piece. I’ll be able to tell you what makes him tick, as it were.”

  Stu gripped the back of his neck, his expression thoughtful. “You’ve got a point there.”

 
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