Amelia Munroe pulled her long dark blue coat close to her as the cool autumn wind drifted off the Seine and whirled around her. The smell of freshly baked bread called to her from each boulengerie she passed like a siren song, but she resisted each of them. Her morning routine was sacred to her – an early morning run around Le Jardin De Luxembourg, shower, coffee and catching up on news in her apartment, all before her short walk to work, stopping for breakfast (and another coffee) at the cafe closest to it.
She sat outside, despite the breeze, looking up the building which housed her office – the Musée D’Orsay. She loved the building itself, almost as much as the art it contained. The converted train station was more a home to her than any of the houses or apartments she’d ever inhabited, and it gave her butterflies every day she walked through the door to start her day. It had a buzz whenever it was open to the public – a quiet buzz, of course, but she could feel the awe experienced by everyone gazing at some of the finest art ever produced. It was tangible to her, a layer of group consciousness and connectedness.
As she made her way through the employee entrance and into the main hall of the museum, she heard the familiar sound of Professor Carabin’s wheelchair approaching from behind.
“Bonjour Professor.” Amelia offered without turning, before he reached her.
“Bonjour Amelia, how are you this morning?” Came the reply, through the Professor’s thick French accent and weathered voice.
She turned to face her mentor; “Monet’s Poppies,” she pronounced cheerfully, “and you?”
“Boudin’s Port of Camaret. There’s someone here to see you.”
“A friend of yours?”
“I know him.”
“Not a friend then…”
“We used to be. I haven’t seen him for years.”
“What does he want?”
“He wouldn’t tell me, just that he needs to see you. He works for the British government Amelia.”
Amelia removed her coat and hat, and made sure her hair wasn’t about to embarrass her. “I suppose I shouldn’t keep him waiting then… My office?”
“No, I had him wait in your favourite spot.”
Amelia leaned down and gave the Professor a kiss on the cheek. “What would I do without you René?”
He smiled and let the rhetorical question float by him.
Amelia made her way upstairs to the North-East corner of the fifth floor, where she found a man in jeans and a leather jacket, staring out through the clock face which offered a view of the Jardin des Tuileries, and Sacré Coeur in the distance.
“What kind of government official wears jeans and a leather jacket?” She asked.
“The kind staying under the radar.” The man replied as he turned and offered a handshake.
“Amelia Munroe” she announced as she shook his hand.
“Richard Westbrook,” he replied, “I represent Her Majesty’s government.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise – we’ve been following your career with great interest.”
“Why does that always sound ominous?”
“It isn’t meant to. We simply keep an eye on persons of interest to us.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t make it better.”
“I know. But you needn’t worry, I’m merely here to offer you an opportunity… You have skills that are, how would you say, useful to my government. You graduated from Harvard and then Cambridge, worked at the Met for three years before leaving America – now unable to return, the reasons given by your CIA are typically vague. We lose track of you for a couple of years and then you turn up working here at the Musée D’Orsay under your former tutor at Cambridge, our mutual friend Professor Carabin, as an expert in impressionist art, and… how does one say it? And obtainer of pieces of interest.”
“Do you need me here for this conversation or should I get another cup of coffee?”
“Forgive me, I only meant to ask if you could fill in the gap for me – what did you do for those two years?”
“None of your business.”
“Amelia, I’m not here to dig into your past…”
“All evidence to the contrary.”
“Her Majesty’s government would like for you to perform a service for us.”
“Richard, I’m an American. We’re not really accustomed to doing favours for Her Majesty’s government. Unless it’s bailing you out of a war of course.”
“I said a service, not a favour.”
Amelia paused and looked out through the clock face to the city spread out below them.
“What do you want, Mr Westbrook?” She asked, pointedly using his surname, which was not lost on him.
“We’d like for you to go to India for us, inspect a piece of art, verify its authenticity and if it is genuine, recover it for us.”
“And for this service, what do I get?”
“The thanks of a grateful government.”
“I hope that was your attempt at a joke.”
“What do you want?”
“My usual fee, all costs covered… René can give you the details.”
“This might exceed the bounds of your usual recoveries.”
“What haven’t you told me?”
“This piece isn’t… available. It’s in a private collection, and it’s meant to stay that way. It’s not available at any price.”
“The piece is the property of Sanchit Singh, the business man. Do you know him?”
“I know of him.”
“He’s going to run for President of India next year. The British government can’t get involved with him, on any level. This piece of art was stolen from the Prado in Madrid a decade ago, taken to India, and Singh now hangs it in his main office, the penthouse suite of his flagship hotel in Mumbai.”
“You want me to steal from a man who might be the next President of India.”
“Given your attitudes towards your own Presidents in the past, I would have thought that would be no problem.”
“We have an expression where I come from; Take a hike. You came here to ask me to do something illegal for you, and I really don’t need that kind of trouble right now, so what are we talking about?”
“I can help you with the Americans.”
For all her headstrong attitude, and all her love of Paris, the smallest hint of being able to return home stopped Amelia in her tracks. “And I’m supposed to just trust you?”
“I realise it’s a stretch.”
She ran her hand through her hair to cover her face for a moment, buying herself a few seconds to compose her thoughts.
“If I do this, I’m not doing it for you, your government, or for the promise of whatever carrot you have to dangle in front of me. If I do this, the museum gets the piece when we’re done.”
“I can agree to that – but if you do this, there is no ‘we’ – you and I haven’t met, and you won’t see me again unless you’re successful.”
“I can live with the disappointment.”
He pulled a card from his inside coat pocket, “Call this number, whenever you’re in France, and someone will get a message to me securely. In India, you’re on your own. You’ll find your usual fee has already been transferred to your account.”
“You were sure I’d say yes?”
Richard started walking away as he responded; “No, but my guys have been listening in this whole time and they’ll have it done faster than you can check it.”
“Comms check?” Amelia asked, holding her finger close to her ear, ready to adjust the position of the earpiece. She felt like a secret service woman, in her suit and sunglasses, but with none of the actual authority of those agents.
“Loud and clear Madam, no problems.” Bhavin replied. Nominally, Bhavin was her driver, but in reality he was more akin to a “fixer”. René had put them in touch after Westbrook’s visit, knowing anything Amelia needed, she could get from him. He had been a student of René’s at Cambridge a few years after Amelia had departed, and she was reliably informed that his various interests in Mumbai made him a considerable income each month, as well as possessing many useful contacts. He insisted on calling Amelia “Madam” regardless of the fact that he earned more than she did – Amelia assumed it was because he struggled to pronounce her name well. She didn’t care about that, but Bhavin’s insisted.
She looked up at the hotel. It had been built only a few years ago and named Singh’s Mumbai Grand Hotel. Nobody needed it explaining to whom it referred. However there was work constantly taking place in and around the structure, on scaffolding made of bamboo and strung together with rope. None of the angles seemed right to Amelia, the entire structure seemed to lean this way and that, but somehow it remained standing, even with the workers moving casually around it.
She glanced back to Bhavin, who had parked their car outside the main gate, pointing towards the expressway. Something in her gaze must have seemed uncertain as Bhavin’s voice came through their radio-link almost instantly.
“Good luck Madam, I’ll be here for you.”
“Thank you Bhavin. Keep the chatter to a minimum, okay?”
“Okay Madam, no problems.”
She walked forward and entered the building via the kitchen door. The staff glanced up, but only briefly. Amelia wondered if they spoke English, but kept her focus solely on making her way across the room and into the restaurant beyond. She avoided eye contact and as she reached the door on the far side of the kitchen, removed her glasses and let her hair out of the bun she had tied it in. She was less Secret Service now as just a business woman in a very westernised hotel. “Just blend in” she told herself. “Confidence is all it takes.”
At the last second, she spotted a Lazy Susan near the door and started wheeling it along herself.
“What are you doing?” a voice enquired.
“Taking this to Mr Singh’s suite.” she barked back. That seemed to settle all debate. It was a good lie, Amelia thought, since it was all true. She was taking it to Mr Singh’s suite. The fact that he was in Delhi for the weekend didn’t need to be a part of their discussion.
She crossed the restaurant and headed to the private elevator opposite. This would be more tricky. The kitchen staff wouldn’t keep such a close track of Singh’s movements, but the security guard at the top of his private elevator would know that he was not in residence. She proceeded regardless, pressing the button and entering the elevator when it arrived. She felt her throat tighten as she rode it to the penthouse suite, an invisible hand wrapped around it and slowly closing off her airway. The door opened and before her stood a man several inches taller than her, dressed in a dark suit with two obvious, awkward bulges – one over his left breast and the other on his right hip – both concealed weapons.
“What are you doing here?” he began, as Amelia wheeled the Lazy Susan from the lift. “This is Mr Singh’s private floor, how did you get up here?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Amelia stalled for a second. “I was just told to bring this food up…”
She waited for the man’s eyes to drop to the tray before suddenly ramming it into his knees. She jumped forward and thrust the palm of her hand up into his nose, causing it to bleed instantly and the man to yell out in pain.
She spun and kicked him in the head as it dropped to his hands, knocking him out. The thud he made as he hit the ground had an oddly satisfying sound to it, like dropping a sack of potatoes.
Such satisfaction however, could not be dwelled upon – Amelia moved quickly to the door of the office, locked with a combination. This was the first part of the operation that she and Bhavin had not been able to plan for. She took a blacklight from her pocket and shone it on the numbers. She could see which had been used and read them to Bhavin.
“Okay Bhavin, it’s a combination lock, numbers 0-1-4-5-7-8-9. There’s only five digits, it must be a six-digit code.”
Back in the car Bhavin sat waiting with an iPad. He typed the numbers as she spoke them.
“Give me a moment.”
Amelia looked around, noting the security cameras that Bhavin was supposed to have bypassed.
“You looped the security cameras, right Bhavin?”
“Oh yes Madam, everything’s tickity-boo.”
“Bhavin you went to Cambridge, you do realise nobody says that, don’t you?”
“Yes Madam. Can you read the numbers again?”
“How did the iPad come up with that?”
“Not the iPad Madam, its my idea. That date is independence day. Singh is obsessed with politics.”
Amelia smiled, entered the number and the lock released. She walked calmly though the door.
“Bhavin, you’re a genius.”
“Thank you Madam.”
“When I get back, I owe you a… Holy shit.”
Amelia stopped in her tracks, seeing the piece of art that Richard Westbrook had told her about. Her heart seemed to slow down but beat harder, elongating the moment, as Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone hung before her.
“Are you alright Madam?” Bhavin asked.
“I’m fine.” Amelia stuttered. “I’m in the office. The piece of art is Starry Night Over the Rhone.”
“I thought it was already in your museum?”
Amelia found her feet again and moved to it. “It is. That’s the point. One of them is a forgery.”
She examined the painting up close.
“Which one is… Hold on…” Bhavin’s voice suddenly had an edge and urgency that was not present until now.
“It’s this one. This one is real.” Amelia confirmed, oblivious to the change in his voice.
“Madam, there are men on their way.” Bhavin continued with ever-increasing sharpness. “You have to take the painting.”
Amelia looked around the room and saw a wardrobe in the far corner of the room. She rushed to it and flung the door open, finding a suitcase. In it she quickly stuffed a couple of suits to add padding, then returned to the painting.
“One minute Madam” Bhavin informed her “I can see them on the monitors – coming up the stairs”.
Amelia cringed, her stomach doing backflips and the lump in her throat growing by the second.
“Vincent Van Gogh, please forgive me…” she muttered as she took the painting from the wall and closed it into the suitcase. She then sprinted for the other room of the office, carrying the suitcase. She opened the door to the second room, and saw the terrifying task which was now before her. The window was open, leading to the bamboo scaffolding, which she would have to climb down.
The workers on the scaffold looked stunned, but apathetic, as Amelia climbed out through the window and onto the scaffold. Wind that had been non-existent on the ground now blew her hair around her face, obscuring her view for a second. When her vision returned she looked out from the tenth floor scaffold and saw nothing but the potential fall below her. The only crumb of comfort was seeing Bhavin’s car the other side of the wall at the bottom of the scaffold. She didn’t give herself time to dwell on the height, instead immediately lowering herself awkwardly from level to level within the frames. She felt her heart beating like a bass drum against her ribcage and sweat flowing from her forehead and hands as she moved. Carrying the suitcase with her slowed her considerably, and for a moment she weighed the risk of throwing it down before her, but decided against it.
She heard a shout from above her, quickly followed by a gunshot.
“Not the painting!” she found herself shout involuntarily from six floors below, before regaining a pinch of composure and wondering why she was more concerned with the painting than herself.
“Bhavin I’m at the fourth floor, start the car.”
“Already started Madam.”
She swung herself down another level, clattering the suitcase against the upright of the scaffold.
“I’m going to jump onto the wall.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea Madam…” Bhavin managed to get out half of his sentence before she jumped. He heard a thud and a groan through the radio, leaned out of the car and saw the suitcase and an arm, hanging over the wall. He deduced that Amelia was dangling from the other side moments before seeing her pull herself onto the two-storey-high wall. He heard two more gunshots as Amelia turned around and lowered herself as far down the wall as possible before letting go and falling to the ground and yelling in pain over the radio.
Bhavin flinched, then lurched the car forward to her and swung open the door.
“Come on Madam.”
Amelia threw in the suitcase and then lifted herself gingerly into the back of the car and closed the door.
Bhavin did – immediately blending in to the traffic heading towards and onto the expressway.
Paris shimmered in the evening sun as Amelia looked out from her favourite window in the Musée D’Orsay, the quiet buzz of the museum comforting and consoling her while she felt her right ankle twinge as she put a little more weight onto it.
“That can’t feel right.” Richard Westbrook’s voice cut through the hum. “I hope it was worth it.”
“You should have told me.”
“What the piece was?”
“Would you have still done it if you’d know?”
“Easy to say now… Regardless, we appreciate your efforts.”
Amelia examined Richard’s face, finding no discernible expression to clue her in to his sincerity.
“I am curious about one thing.” he continued. “You wanted the museum to have the piece if you happened to recover it, before you knew it was one you already displayed.”
“Thought we displayed.”
“Well, indeed. But given that you didn’t know yours was a forgery, what difference does it make?”
“It makes a big difference. Contrary to what you might think, it matters a great deal whether one it dealing with the genuine article. The original piece is the truth of what Van Gogh wanted to express, and he did it without the expectation of it being seen by very many people. Even the very slightest brush-stroke difference changes that truth. Art is our means of understanding our past, for better or worse, and if we disguise or distort that past, we don’t learn from it. Art has to belong to the people, not the select few who can afford to buy up our cultural history simply because it looks good on their office wall, or to show off their wealth.”
“I agree.” he said simply. “Why do you think we got in touch with you?”
“I honestly haven’t a clue.” Amelia replied. “Have you been to see the painting?”
“That’s my next stop.”
Amelia grinned the look of someone who knows what a treat their friend is about to experience. “It’s quite something.” She stated, mysteriously.
“I believe you.” Westbrook replied, with a voice that sounded kind for the first time. “We’ll be in touch, Miss Munroe.”
Amelia smiled and replied with a question; “Richard Westbrook? That isn’t your real name is it?”
“No it’s not.” He replied, turned and began to leave.
She laughed to herself. Spies would be spies, she supposed, wondering if her latest adventure made her one of them. She called after him, and was oblivious to his smile at her reference.
“Richard, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”