French girl with mother, p.16
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       French Girl with Mother, p.16

           Norman Ollestad
 
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  Hal waved at me from the far side. He was just upriver of the body, wearing a sweater and a cap, and I realized I was shivering.

  “I’ll meet you back at the dam,” he said, and he started walking.

  Would he draw a gun or just ask me, in that wholesome mid-western lilt, to take a ride with him? Would he turn me over to the French authorities or to the American Embassy? Nearing the dam, I glanced into the woods, leafless, the ground sodden. Turning, I caught a sliver of the château upriver. Then I crossed to his side.

  “It was self-defense,” I implored. “He shot at least five rounds at me. Apparently he can’t swim.”

  “I know,” he said. “One of my Toms heard the shots. Watched the whole thing through his infrareds.”

  “Then he’ll vouch for me?”

  Hal had grown a thin mustache and now it wrinkled when his mouth puckered. “Well . . .”

  “Well what?”

  “It would raise eyebrows,” he said. “Know what I mean?”

  “No, I don’t. He’s under surveillance, right? And your guy saw him try to kill me.”

  “The situation is complicated by the fact that he’s a connected diplomat,” Hal responded. “Even if we’d petitioned for a surveillance warrant, regardless of whether or not we got it, he would’ve surely been tipped off.”

  “So because the FBI isn’t authorized to be watching him, you can’t help me?”

  Hal nodded.

  “What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

  “Tell me everything you know.”

  sixty-eight

  After I’d laid out the whole ordeal—stolen Schieles and all—I had to sit down on a log and compose myself. When I looked up, Hal was rocking up and down on the balls of his feet, smirking with self-satisfaction.

  “So what now?” I said.

  “I got a sweeper tucking Blanchon’s body away. You need to go back to the château and go through the motions until they make contact with you.”

  “I was thinking of just grabbing the portraits and splitting.” I left out the part where Anaïs would come with me because I sensed he believed she was Bernard’s accomplice.

  “Come on now, Nathan.”

  “But I told you they have the Schieles. Why can’t I split?”

  “Because now we know that Jean Luc was the one that moved the merchandise across the border into Switzerland, using his diplomatic immunity. He was supposed to have taken the Schieles across early this morning. Now he’s missing, so they’re desperate. They need someone else to do it.” Hal flashed that palsied smile.

  “Then all you have to do is follow Bernard,” I assured him.

  “No. They want to use you.”

  “Me?”

  After the terrorist attack in Zurich, Hal explained, the Swiss borders were on high alert and the risk of getting caught moving anything, much less stolen art, across the border had increased by a thousandfold. With Jean Luc missing, Bernard and his “associates” in Switzerland were scrambling for another way to get the Schieles to the Saudi prince in Bern. In their haste, they’d become a bit reckless and early this morning Hal had picked up cell phone chatter about the exchange, delayed twice already, and the prince getting impatient, threatening to scuttle the deal. Out of desperation, Bernard had introduced the idea of having me, based on my backcountry experience, ski the Schieles across the border.

  “You’re their last best chance,” Hal said. “If they had to send a novice up there, the odds of him getting lost, falling into a crevasse, or triggering an avalanche would be too high. But not with you.”

  “Well, there’s no guarantee. I’ve seen guides with twenty years of experience get taken out up there.”

  He blatantly ignored me. “And ironically,” he continued, “it’s a great plan. Except for the fact that we know about it, and we’ve got an inside man.” Again, he flaunted that palsied smile, which I’d grown to despise.

  “I’m not in good enough shape,” I argued. “I’d have to train at altitude for weeks. And I only know certain routes. I’m not trekking across the fucking Alps on a route I don’t know. That’s a death trap.”

  “Don’t worry, I got all that covered.”

  My scoff was more of a cough followed by a spit. I shook my head. No way.

  “Or your other option is to face questioning by the French police about your involvement in the altercation that led to Jean Luc Blanchon’s death.”

  My arms opened, mouth slightly agape, and I was shaking my head at him. He just stared back at me with those lifeless eyes.

  sixty-nine

  When I got to the house, Anaïs was in the kitchen, wrestling with the French press.

  “Mon amour,” she said, dropping the canister on the counter and rushing up to me.

  Her hands cradled my face, those eyes still full of last night’s devotion, the storm inside quieter than ever. I was pondering how I’d protect her from getting caught up in Hal’s net when Bernard came up the stairs.

  “Is Papa with you?” Anaïs asked him right away.

  “No, my minnow. We think he took a late train to Paris. He had an early meeting today. You should have come for me last night.”

  “We thought he went back to your house,” she told him. “I hope he’s okay.”

  “Just a wooden mouth,” he guffawed.

  “It wasn’t so funny last night, Bernard,” she said.

  “Mais oui,” he said. “I need to take our Rembrandt away for a little bit. Okay?”

  “Why?”

  “I have an important errand to take care of, and since he’s practically part of the family now, I thought, why not ask Nathan?”

  “Hurry up,” she said, clearly pleased. “I have my own personal errand for him . . .”

  She winked at me and went upstairs.

  When I turned, he was lighting a cigar at the dining table.

  “I made Sophie show me the double portrait,” he said, eyes gleaming. “It filled me with envy . . .”

  Under the circumstances it was absurd, but I said, “Merci . . .”

  “What will you call it?” he asked.

  I glanced across the room and plucked the title from thin air. “French Girl with Mother.”

  He made a sound of garish satisfaction. And I expected questions about last night’s incident with his brother, but he bypassed that.

  “There’s a complication,” he said.

  “What does that mean?”

  “I can’t get you the money quite yet. I’m sorry.”

  “Fuck,” I told him, following Hal’s script. “I need to ship the portraits by Thursday. Friday at the latest. This is my big chance, Bernard.”

  “I know, I’m sorry. I just need you to make a delivery for me.”

  “But can’t you just give me a thousand euros right now?”

  “There’s nothing I can do. It’s out of my hands.”

  I scuffed the floor with my foot, paced, and finally said, “Okay, what do I need to do?”

  “Sit down and I will explain.”

  I lowered into a chair, felt the cell phone in my back pocket, and hoped I’d left it on.

  seventy

  Bernard asked me if I would be willing to climb high into the Alps, away from any resorts, any eyes, and transport the real Schieles hidden in my backpack to a Swiss border town.

  “Why not just drive them across?” I challenged him, per Hal’s instructions.

  “Because the provenance of the drawings is in question,” he explained. “A family grievance over inheritance. The authorities probably have someone watching me, so we have to do it another way. The Swiss border is infested with police looking for terrorists. I can’t take a chance that we’ll get searched somehow.”

  I acted as if that made me nervous, which wasn’t difficult, and he told me he’d double my money to forty thousand euros.

  “Fifty,” I said, adamant.

  “D’accord,” he said.

  I pretended to be impressed. He asked me if, based on m
y back-country experiences, I knew a good route into Switzerland?

  I feigned searching my mind, then told him I’d once skied a good route from St. Anton, Austria, to a Swiss village called Samnaun, which was true.

  “Do you feel confident doing it alone?”

  No, not really. “Sure,” I said.

  The drawings would be stored in metal tubes—two in each—and the enclosed ends would be further secured with tamper tape, he told me, unambiguously.

  “Can you make the crossing in less than forty-eight hours?”

  Anything less would push my slack conditioning past even the most optimistic expectations and would just be outright stupid, turning the already-dangerous trek into a suicide mission; but I couldn’t take any longer than two days because the shipping deadline for the show was three days away, and I needed that third day to get back to the château and send off the portraits.

  “Yeah,” I said.

  “Good, because I don’t want them rolled up for longer than that.”

  He grabbed the whiskey bottle and poured two shots.

  “Here’s to your big show and the certain fame to follow.”

  We drank and shook hands.

  “I’d like you to set out tonight,” he said.

  I nodded.

  “I’ll need your backpack to make the necessary preparations. Leave whatever ski gear you need in it.”

  I heard water running and Anaïs singing in the bathroom when I entered the bedroom. A leather suitcase was open on the floor, half-filled with some of the old sweaters and jackets I’d seen in the closet.

  “Are you going somewhere?” I called into the bathroom.

  “I thought we’d go back to Paris now that it’s getting cold,” she called over the gush of water. “Maman is going too; she expects Papa will return to their apartment after his meeting.” Her mention of him made me cringe. “Believe it or not, those vintage coats are back in style. What’s this errand he’s got you doing?”

  “He wants me to take some client he’s wooing backcountry skiing,” I said, repeating the story Bernard and I had settled on.

  “This means he really likes you,” she said.

  Emptying my big backpack of everything but the essentials, my mind looped round and round about what would happen if I got caught smuggling stolen Schieles into Switzerland. Would Hal really come to my aide, or would he let me take the hit? He hadn’t specifically stated that the Swiss authorities were okay with his sting operation.

  Absentmindedly, I was ripping gear out of the backpack and then restuffing it, until I forced myself to take deep breaths and come to terms with my predicament. The route out of St. Anton had a couple really dangerous sections, the glacier before the summit and the steep, avalanche-prone couloirs leading to the valley into Ischgl, a small village where I’d spend the night and recover, before making the border crossing. But on the other hand, I knew the route, a huge plus—except for the last leg into Switzerland because in order to avoid border patrol and ski patrol, who were on high alert, I couldn’t take the ski trail across the border this time; I’d have to stay in the backcountry. Despite these hazards, it was better than the police holding me responsible for, and possibly finding me guilty of, Jean Luc’s death.

  I padded the sweat off my forehead with one of my flannels and then brought the backpack down to Bernard. He told me he’d be back in an hour.

  seventy-one

  The bathwater was no longer running when I returned to the bedroom.

  “Mind if I put a couple things in your suitcase?” I said through the bathroom doorway.

  “Whatever you want, mon amour . . .”

  I carefully rolled the two Anaïs portraits into one of my flannels, and as I packed it between her sweaters in the suitcase, a terrible thought struck me. If something went wrong, I had no evidence of my grand achievement.

  “I’ll be right back . . .” I called, and hurried out of the house. Outside, I opened the stall doors. Light spilled onto the double portrait and I took a photo of it with my phone and quickly shut the doors. In the kitchen I had another whiskey and sent the photo to Janet.

  Here’s what I’ve been working on. Coming your way soon!

  An hour and forty-five minutes later, Bernard dropped Anaïs and me at her apartment in Paris. The overnight train to St. Anton wouldn’t leave for another six hours. Climbing the stairs, Anaïs was cheerful and talkative but I was distracted, unable to believe that I’d come out of this thing without losing her or the double portrait, maybe both. Even if I did somehow pull it off, how would I ever escape the stigma of playing a part in her father’s death, ever shuck off its stench, regardless of the fact that he’d been shooting at me?

  Hal had made it sound so simple. “Make the drop in Samnaun, return to the château to collect your money and your portraits, and then get the hell out of Dodge. The bust won’t go down until after the Schieles are driven to the Swiss operative and he makes the exchange with the prince.” Both of us had avoided the subject of Anaïs, what would become of her, as if we knew it was too flammable.

  Hauling my backpack and skis up the narrow stairwell to her apartment, I flashed on the Saudi prince standing in his palace, gloating over his new collection of Schieles.

  “Sacrificing four pornographic drawings to make sure that no more masterpieces are lost is a pretty good deal in my book,” Hal had snapped at me earlier when I’d questioned his logic over forfeiting the Schieles.

  It reinforced my theory about Hal: he didn’t really care about the art; he was mostly in it for the bust.

  Anaïs set down the suitcase and unlocked her apartment door. She pulled me through in a rush to make love, and we tripped over four big shopping bags.

  “Oh, merde.” She was laughing, holding on to me. “This was supposed to be your surprise. Before I saw your note and got suspicious.”

  I lifted the top item out of one of the bags. A fluffy white duvet.

  “I want you to be comfortable here,” she said, pulling out two feather pillows from the next bag, four thick bath towels from another, and showing me an assortment of men’s toiletry products in the last.

  “You’re the sweetest,” I said, and I helped carry the nesting things into her bedroom.

  With her back to me, she dropped her bags and slowly took off her clothes. Untying her braid, she rested down on the futon, hair flowing out as if she were underwater. Her arms were at her sides like a girl on her wedding night waiting to be taken.

  “I don’t need to defend anymore,” she said to me, as I stood over her. “I want to give you everything.”

  She pulled me down on top of her, her warm skin and greedy mouth melting all the wretched things closing in on us to sand. The grim circumstances flaked away under our frantic caresses, and we never let go, plowing deeper, tasting each other’s salts, bleeding into one body, as if nothing could ever come between us, nothing.

  In the aftermath, entangled, she said, “So, you really want to live with me?”

  “Yes.” I meant it with every fiber, even though I was about to put a dagger in our future.

  “I want you so badly, Nathan,” she said, and she wound herself around me tighter.

  seventy-two

  The train ride went on forever.

  I could still feel the way Anaïs clung to me at the station, something I’d never felt from anyone, and now I hungered for it like an addict. Would I ever see her again? I beat the window with my fist until my knuckles bled.

  Only hours ago, I’d been on top of the world, and then in one fell swoop, a little shove, it had all been ripped away, and now I was just hoping not to spend my life in prison.

  I sat like a corpse until the train pulled into the Innsbruck station.

  When I found the platform for my connection to St. Anton, I stretched out on a bench in the freezing Alpine air.

  My cell phone buzzed and I sat up.

  “Is that you loitering on the bench like a real ski bum?” asked Artur Dorfmein, a trai
n conductor who lived in Feldkirch, and with whom I’d skied the backcountry of Liechtenstein last season.

  “Yes, of course,” I said, and we laughed, releasing some of the tension that had been seeping up my neck, shoulders, pinching my temples.

  The train had just entered the station and I saw Artur wave from the engine car. He invited me to ride with him and a few seconds later I climbed in.

  I told him about Anaïs, that I was moving in with her and that I was picking up some things I’d left in St. Anton—and in that moment, it all sounded plausible, a shadow life I’d probably never get to live. We got to talking about our Liechtenstein backcountry adventures and he mentioned the old World War II road that straddled the border between Liechtenstein and Austria. I’d forgotten about the road, but not the powder, and now recalled how we’d snuck back into Austria using that road after we skied down from the mountain, just to see if we could.

  “The old guard tower made of logs,” I said, “makes it feel like you’re in the 1940s, you know?”

  “Oh, yes,” he said. “That road has a lot of history around it.”

  When the train pulled into St. Anton, I promised to look him up later in the season—we’d devour some fresh pulver—and I climbed out of the engine car.

  seventy-three

  I walked straight into the station bathroom, changed into my ski gear, and then crossed the town toward the Rendl side of the ski area, which wouldn’t open for another few days, hoping I didn’t run into anyone else I knew.

  The town was quiet. Wooden chalets carved with edelweiss flowers, rosebuds, and snowflakes; cobblestone streets, smelling of tea and coffee and strudel. If only I could rewind time and lose my ambition and just be happy traversing the Alps, making some drawings, appreciating my freedom—something I feared might be gone forever now.

  Before I knew it, I was pasting the mohair skins to the bottom of my skis, and then I started climbing the comeback trail toward the Moostal valley. Soon, jagged cliff faces appeared off my left shoulder and the mountain got steep. A gust of wind caught me by surprise and I slipped dangerously close to a sheer precipice.

 
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