Twelve years is a long time to hold onto $350 million worth of paintings if you don't want them.
It's even longer if you stole them.
The Falcon was a patient man, but his patience was almost exhausted. The risk, with no reward, had begun to wear on him. He had stolen Fabergé eggs, the Magnini diamond and Louis XIV's crown, but none were worth even twenty million dollars. And none had been in his hands more than a week or two. Rich people hired him, he stole what they wanted, he delivered it right away, they paid. Simple--usually.
The problem wasn't that his client had reneged. Quite the contrary. The client wanted the art--badly. He called weekly, then monthly, then yearly, then not at all. At first the client was insistent, then he turned angry and finally he became almost pitiful. The last time he actually pleaded.
Undoubtedly, the client was still very interested. But hours after The Falcon's colleagues broke into the Gladstone Museum and ripped the twelve paintings from its walls, things changed. The experts revealed the mind-numbing value of the art. Suddenly, the client's fee of three million dollars seemed paltry.
The thieves had expected the heist to be big, but not the biggest in history. They had never stolen paintings, so they could only guess their value. And prior to the theft, numbers hadn't been bandied about publicly; they rarely are when paintings are safely on museum walls.
The thieves were stunned. When their heads cleared two days later, The Falcon convinced his colleagues to pass up their fee for, potentially, much more.
The Falcon knew that they wouldn't get $350 million. Thieves never get full value for collectibles. But even the usual seven to ten percent was well worth the risk of trying to sell the masterpieces to some rich Japanese or Greek art lover with no scruples.
At least that's what The Falcon had thought twelve years ago. That was before he had to lay low, refusing three lucrative jobs to avoid attracting attention. That was before his colleagues started to carp about getting their payoff.
The delay was really no surprise. First there was the cooling off period--nine years while the FBI and private detectives hired by the Gladstone Museum chased theory after theory, lead after lead. The trail was never hot (in fact, it was ice cold), but eyes were everywhere. Contacting even a friend of a friend of a potential buyer was just too risky.
Finally, when the authorities had lost much of their drive and had become resigned to relying on luck, The Falcon began to send out feelers. He was discreet, of course. That was how he had become one of the world's greatest thieves of rare works. He got close to very few people in his business, and never once had a detective gotten close to him. He hunted his prey quietly, and then swooped in fast. The Falcon lived up to his name.
In this case, however, The Falcon's discretion made moving the paintings difficult. Worse, the art underworld seemed to be spooked by the media attention. No one had made an offer. Now, twelve years later, the client's fee was beginning to look pretty good.
Unless, of course, Jacques' e-mail message bore fruit. It had said simply, "Expect a call from a man whose name has five letters and begins with D. He has 12 reasons to call. He seems legitimate. Eager. Told him it might take time." The Falcon admired Jacques' circumspection. They worked well together.
Would Mr. D offer ten million? Maybe twenty? The Falcon had day-dreamed about it, until now, three days after getting Jacques' message, he suspected that the buyer had gotten cold feet.
Which is why the next two minutes were the most exhilarating of his life.
He sat reading the Monday Boston Globe in his Weston study, walls of books surrounding him, a red and black Persian rug under his feet. The phone rang. "Hello," he answered flatly, expecting nothing more than someone trying to sell him something. Instead, it was someone trying to buy something.
The caller was French. His words were blunt: "I am an acquaintance of Mr. Boudet. He tells me you have twelve items of great value, items that you may want to sell."
The Falcon's pulse surged. He jerked forward in his over-stuffed chair. As calmly as possible, he replied, "I may. Let me call you on my cell phone. What is your number?"
The Falcon figured his cell phone wasn't bugged. As for the rest of the house, who knew? He pounded in the caller's number.
"Sorry," he told the Frenchman. "I don't take chances."
"Excuse me, please, but I must be discreet as well. I must verify that I am speaking with the correct person. Please tell me the first name of Mr. Boudet."
The Falcon smiled. "Jacques."
"Very good. Let me get right to the point, then. Assuming these items are in good condition, I am prepared to pay seventy-five million."
For a moment, The Falcon didn't reply. The world's most savvy thief was too shocked to say a word.
"Did you hear me?" the Frenchman asked.
His heart raced, but The Falcon regained his composure. "Yes, yes I did."
"Then is that acceptable?"
The Falcon paused for a second or two. He didn't want to sound eager. "Yes, I believe that is acceptable--assuming the transaction can be done in a secure manner for both of us."
"Certainly. First, a viewing. Then, a day or two later, the transfer of the items. I can wire funds directly to your account."
"That will work. Of course, the deposit and the transfer must be done simultaneously."
"When can my authenticator and I see them? We are in the U.S. for only a short while."
"I'll need three, maybe four days," The Falcon said. "I'm sure you can understand."
"Certainly. Your due diligence."
The Falcon said nothing.
"But Friday is as long as I can wait."
"I can be ready by then."
"At my hotel--in Boston. Downtown."
"No." It came out brusquely, and The Falcon instantly regretted it. But he knew he'd regret being careless even more. He would do almost anything to unload the paintings for seventy-five million. But 'almost' didn't include meeting in a hotel. Hotels had security cameras and people who might remember him later. Even The Falcon's own house ten miles outside Boston wasn't a good option; nosey neighbours could see visitors come and go. If the Frenchman got sloppy and was caught with stolen art under his arm, someone might connect the dots.
"Please understand," The Falcon said. "It isn't a matter of trust; it's a matter of security. For both of us. I have a completely private location." The Falcon gave the caller the address of his brother-in-law's cottage in Manomet, an hour from Weston. He knew where the key was hidden, and he knew no one would be there on a weekday in late September.
"I look forward to seeing the items," the Frenchman concluded. "I am sure they are in excellent condition. Until Friday, then..."
"Just a minute," The Falcon said. "You know who I am. I need to know who you are."
There was silence. Then, the Frenchman said slowly, "Degas. You can call me Degas."
Under different circumstances, The Falcon might have chuckled. And under different circumstances, he would have pressed Degas for more than just a name. But rather than upset the seventy-five-million-dollar apple cart, he held his questions for Jacques. He'd be calling his friend in about three minutes.
The Falcon looked out a mahogany-framed window and said simply, "Good to speak with you, Mr. Degas. I will see you Friday."
The tension--the euphoria--had exhausted him. He lit one of the Cubans he had been saving for two years, took a satisfied pull on it, and sat back, the brown leather exhaling under him. Slowly, a smile came to his lips. After a while, he was grinning so broadly it almost hurt.
Then the smile was gone. The Falcon realized he had a problem. In his shock he hadn't thought of it when Degas made the offer. It might change everything.
The Falcon could only hope that the damage would be limited to a lower price. Even with Jacques' ten percent, he could easily live with that. He decided that he'd wait until Friday to tell Degas, and hope that the Frenchman wouldn't care.
He took another pull on the Cuban, and then looked at his twenty-four-carat-gold Rolex. It was eight in Nice. Jacques would be finishing his blanquette de veau right about now.
The Falcon picked up the phone.