Author's Note: a very special thank you to both Linda and elysium1996 for the excellent beta work. Thanks, guys!
"Are you sure we shouldn't just pull over somewhere for the night?" Amita's voice reflected her increasing concern.
There was reason for her concern. Normally at two in the afternoon the atmosphere was bright with sunshine, albeit anemic sunlight given the autumnal time of year. Indeed, even though the array of photons was noted for less than its usual fortitude in these elevated mountain surroundings, the lack of quantity was still remarkable, as demonstrated by Amita's question.
Not only was there a sparsity of photons, but there was an over-abundance of miniscule hydroxyl molecules in the form frequently referred to as 'rain', though the simple four letter word did not do adequate justice to the weather condition, since the quantity edged into concepts such as 'flood' and 'mud-slide' and 'has anyone contacted Noah about re-constructing an ark?'
"It's only two o'clock in the afternoon," Charlie objected. "It's not that much further up the mountain, right? Larry?"
"I really couldn't tell you, Charles," Dr. Fleinhardt admitted. "I haven't been to the place in a minimum of three decades and my memory has deteriorated over time. Not to mention that the domicile bears less than pleasant remembrances for me," he added darkly. "Megan?"
"What does the map say?" Megan hunched over the wheel to the rental SUV. Not really a rental; Megan had signed it out of the FBI car pool upon learning that the weather in the southern California mountains was expected to rival Katrina in one of her better moods. Neither Charlie nor Amita owned a car that she was willing to trust under these circumstances and as for Larry's elderly pride and joy? Hah; Megan wanted to arrive reasonably dry and intact. And she'd insisted on taking the wheel herself, pointing out quite accurately that of the four of them, only Megan had taken and passed the FBI defensive driving course. And, at Charlie's comments, had pointed out that the course included not only how to out-maneuver people who were shooting at you, but how to drive in less than ideal weather conditions.
"The map doesn't say anything. It is an inanimate object."
"Hah hah. How far from this inheritance of yours, Larry?"
"According to the map," Larry's miffed look was wasted in the dim light, "we are somewhere between four and six miles from the center of Ferresville, which is three point six miles from the entrance to the estate, if I am correctly interpolating the distance in reference to the scale and assuming that this map bears a reasonable resemblance to reality."
"I still can't believe that you inherited a castle, Larry," Amita sighed. "I mean, things like that only happen in fiction."
"Oh, believe me, Cousin Isabel was very real. She is—was—my second cousin thrice removed on my mother's side and, for reasons that will remain unknownst to me and the rest of mankind forever, fond of me in my younger days."
"Fortunately, no." Larry winced, the movement likewise lost in the dark. "Imagine, if you will, being twelve years old and being forced to dance with an elderly and obese female relative at the various weddings and similar formal affairs while growing up. That was my Cousin Isabel."
"So she left you this house? Up in the mountains?"
"So it appears." Larry looked forlornly out at the pelting drops of rain, his breath condensing on the window. "I always feared that she might. Now I am to be put to the task of disposing of it in an expeditious manner."
"Doesn't anyone else in the family want it? After all, it is a castle, right?"
Larry snorted in derision. "Proposing that another branch of the family acquire this heirloom would open up yet another contentious can of proverbial worms. Several have already sought to direct my attention in their favor and to my financial detriment. No, Charles, please believe me on this one: I will regularize the title to this monstrosity and then seek to shovel the burden of disposition onto some hapless realtor so that I might return to my research in relative peace and quiet. Pun intended," he added, at the groans that greeted his last remark. Larry glanced at the clock on the dashboard. "Perhaps the town clerk will have left her post, due to the inclement weather?" he suggested hopefully.
"That will just mean that you have to stay another night, Larry," Amita pointed out.
Larry sighed. "You're right. Best to get this trial accomplished as quickly as possible so that we can return to civilization."
"This is civilization," Megan told him amicably, guiding the SUV onto what looked to be the main drag of Ferresville.
It wasn't anything to be overly proud of. There was a town hall/police station/post office/all around government type place. And there was a store of modest proportions. And there was a gas station with a single pump. And that was all. No, wait—there was a shack down the street that, if it wasn't already abandoned, ought to have been.
"Wow." Charlie had his nose pressed right up against the car window. "When the town clerk said you couldn't miss the town hall, she wasn't kidding. Are we sure this is the right town?"
"It's what the sign says." Megan pointed out a small and tasteful—if faded—sign that said, 'leaving Ferresville'. The other side, she remembered, had said, 'entering Ferresville.' Where's the sign saying 'population 13'? she wondered. She pulled the SUV into the rutted parking spot in front of the government building, and she could have sworn that the vehicle gave a sigh of relief. Hey, the road wasn't that bad!
Yes, it was. Even now, the main street was covered in mud where the torrents of rain water hadn't sluiced away the silt. More dirt had splashed up the sides of the SUV, adding, Megan was certain, another five pounds to be dragged around when they came back out. She glanced up and down the street, wondering where they could spend the night. Driving another three point six miles up to Larry's new home seemed a little dicey; the roads could only get worse. Good thing I overruled Larry's talk of driving up in that gorgeous old car of his. We'd be stuck ten miles down the mountain from here and walking our way out.
The town hall was clean, if cramped, with a veritable warren of offices inside. Most of the offices had the abandoned look of dust lying on top of mounds of forgotten paperwork. Several of the chairs had provided nesting material for the local rodent population. One such rodent looked up at the passers-by and hissed viciously, showing no fear of the larger humans.
"You brought your gun, right?"
"Those rats are big. If I shoot it, it will only make it angry. Better to run away."
But the town clerk's office was bright and cheery, if a little dusty around the edges. An elderly lady so skinny that bones stuck out all over looked up and scowled at them as they entered.
"Don't drip on the carpet," she admonished them. "Wipe your feet! The barn's up the road, not inside this dang building."
Larry glanced down at the linoleum tile. "Madam, there is no carpet."
"Don't argue with me! What'd'ya want? It's stormin' outside, and I wanna get outta here before the road washes out."
"Excellent idea," Larry approved. "I am Dr. Fleinhardt, with an appointment to see Ms. Violet Ferres, town clerk. Are you she?"
"As you so correctly pointed out, the weather conditions are poor." Larry gritted his teeth. He was here, and he had a mission to accomplish, and wished to accomplish it with the minimum amount of fuss and bother. "I would very much like to get this over with so that both you and I can seek better accommodations."
The woman eyed him suspiciously. "You one of those idiots with learnin'? One of them perfessor types?"
"Yes, madam, but more to the point: I am the person with the overdue appointment." Larry tried a brittle smile. "May we file the appropriate documentation with all due haste?"
Charlie butted in with an ingratiating grin. "What he means is, we'd like to get the change of ownership papers on the castle up the hill done so that we can all get home and out of the rain."
Ms. Ferres gave Larry a glare. "Why didn't ya say so instead of jabbering like some over-educated moron? You the schmuck that got stuck with Isabel's haunted house? Here, sign this. And this. And this. And this."
"Haunted house?" Amita perked up her ears. "It's haunted?"
"That's what I said. Sign this one here, and here. You got to have three signatures on this here form. And fourteen sets of initials. Your initials, not Isabel's."
"How is it haunted?"
"Wait a minute, genius, you got yerself more forms to sign." Ms. Ferres wouldn't let Larry escape. "It's haunted on account of there's ghosts there, and a couple of were-wolves been spotted around town, casing the joint. What'sa matter, you don't know what 'haunted' means? And there's back taxes to pay," she announced firmly. "Eighteen months' worth."
"Eighteen months' of back taxes?" Larry was aghast. "No one informed me that there was a lien against the property! Eighteen months?"
"The property ain't leanin' over nowhere. It's solid as a rock. You owe me—and the town—eighteen months of back taxes, mister. Ante up, or you don't get no clean title to the place." Ms. Violet folded her arms. "You kin go back to where you came from, and leave decent people alone."
This was turning out to be less and less of an enjoyable excursion. Larry glowered. "How much? And do you accept credit cards? A check, perhaps?"
Ms. Violet Ferres, town clerk, consulted her records. "No plastic, no out of town checks," she informed them, running her finger over the ledger in front of her. "We run a clean government office here, no fancy schmancy money schemin'. Back taxes due before you git the place in yer name. Eighteen months, on the old haunted castle, adds up to twenty four dollars and eighty four cents. That's includin' the interest," she added virtuously. "I ain't charging you for no sewer stuff, 'cause the place runs off of a septic tank. But you'd better git that thing cleaned out soon. Isabel, she weren't no purty petunia up there."
"Madam, I couldn't agree with you more." Dr. Fleinhardt pulled out a twenty and a five from his wallet. "Keep the change. As a donation to this charming town."
"But we'll need a receipt," Megan slipped in without a smile.
"You his lawyer or something? 'Nother idiot with learnin'?"
A crooked smile. "Ms. Ferres, I can tell you with all honesty that I am the least educated of the four of us," Megan assured her. "And no, I am not a lawyer. Just careful."
"Hmph." Ms. Ferres shoved the papers back at Larry, including a small hand-written receipt for twenty four dollars and eighty four cents. "There. You're done. It's yours."
"Thank you." Larry glanced outside. The weather, if anything, had gotten worse.
Ms. Ferres noticed his concern. "Yeah, you'd better get a move on if you want to git to yer new home tonight instead of sleeping in yer car. There's laws against vagrancy in this town, hear? Don't matter how educated you are. Can't have people sleeping in their cars. Ain't right."
"Maybe we'd better put up at a hotel," Larry agreed. "If memory serves me, the road to Cousin Isabel's former abode left a great deal to be desired. And, in this case, what is desired is paving for the road."
Ms. Ferres blinked. "I sure hope yer talkin' about Isabel's drive being a dirt road, 'cause what you just said sounded awful suspicious. We're a clean town here; ain't got none of them whorehouse abodes. You trying to talk rude in front of a lady?"
Larry looked alarmed. "Madam, I wouldn't dream of it!"
"Where's the nearest hotel?" Megan broke in. "I don't think I saw one as we drove in."
"That's 'cause there ain't one," Violet Ferres informed them. "Like I said, you better git movin'. Else the sheriff'll have to arrest you for vagrancy. You'd best go back down the mountain."
"No hotel?" Charlie too didn't like the looks of the weather outside. "Megan, can the SUV get us through this up to Larry's castle?"
"Better the SUV than walking," Megan said. "Look, Larry and I will finish up here. You and Amita head over to the store; see if you can get some groceries. I didn't see a restaurant here either, did I, Ms. Ferres?"
"Nope. No restaurant. Mikey sold out years ago."
"Smart man," Larry muttered.
"What's that you said?"
"Nothing." Larry pasted an entirely false smile on his face. "What other intricate forms have you for me to sign, madam?"
"You talkin' dirty to me again in front of yer girlfriend? Fer shame on you, young man!"
Don looked at the wall. It was easily twenty feet high, with a lighter rectangle at eye level. It was a museum wall, an inside one, the paint a bit on the old side with a coating of oily grime, and the blank rectangular area belonged to an expensive Michelette. Or, at least, the rectangle had belonged to an expensive Michelette. The reason that Don knew that the wall paint was old was because the expensive Michelette had covered the lighter area and protected it from sunlight and dirt for several years; hence the difference in color. The reason Don knew that it was an expensive Michelette was because the hysterically crying museum curator had been wailing about it for the last twenty minutes, ever since Don had walked in through the museum doors. And the only reason that Don knew that an expensive Michelette was an oil painting from the Chiaroscuro period was because the museum curator had sobbed it out in between demands that Don recover the missing painting on the spot. For himself, Don wouldn't have known a Michelette from a Monet from a kindergartener's finger-painted masterpiece.
Don leaned over to speak into David's ear. "We are talking a painting here, right?"
"Right." David flashed a postcard in his hand. "I got this from the museum gift shop. It's a picture of the picture."
"Thanks." Don took a good look, and then wished that he hadn't.
Don had seen ugly in his day. He had seen double bag ugly, and then some. He'd seen horrific, and terrifying, and—nothing compared to this monstrosity. It was the painting of some overfed man from an earlier century, dressed in what Don supposed was the popular dress of the time. There were all sorts of ruffles swathed around an obtunded figure, a ridiculously small beard on the man's face—Don truly hoped it was a man—that could have passed for a barber missing one swath of chin. The clothing was mostly orange, giving the man an unfortunate resemblance to The Great Pumpkin. Even in the photo, the eyes gleamed demonically at him, and Don could smell the bad breath from the rotting teeth even off of the postcard. Such is the power of imagination, both Michelette's and mine.
"You're kidding, right?"
"Wish I were," David murmured. "The curator says it will fetch somewhere between ten and fifteen million on the black market, never to be seen again."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"It's clear that you were poorly raised as a child. No culture." David kept his voice down so that only Don and he could hear. "Can't you appreciate the fine brush strokes, the intricate interlocking of light and dark that characterize the Chiaroscuro period—"
Don interrupted him before anything more could be said. "Any way we can dump this on LAPD?"
"We should be so lucky. Preliminaries say that this is the same work of a group that lifted three paintings in three different states in the last year," David mourned. "One in Chicago, one in Houston, and the last out of New York. Real high class technicians, this bunch. They disabled the alarm system, slipped around the night watch, and removed the painting. Nobody realized anything had happened until the place opened up this morning."
Don glanced around the room. Four entrances, and six windows perched some fifteen feet above the floor. "How'd they get in?"
"From the roof." Colby sauntered up, notepad in hand. "I just came from there. They left a bit of nylon rope behind. There were three of them, is what the footprints on the gravel on the roof looks like. They tied the rope to one of the fixtures up there, shimmied down to that window, there—" he pointed—"and cut out a piece of glass to reach in and disable the alarms. Nice job, Don," he admitted with reluctant admiration. "They even put the glass back in with a bit of glue, to prevent us from figuring out how they did it right away. I had to do some close looking to figure out how they did it."
Don automatically looked up at the window, high above his head. "It looks like the dust got shoved around on the sill up there," he acknowledged. "Recent. Yeah, that's how I'd say that they got in. Three of them? Must have been acrobats."
"That's their M.O.," David agreed. "It's similar to the other jobs that they've pulled off. Slip in, slip out, no one knows until morning or even the next business day."
"Paintings ever get recovered?"
"Nope. Black market. Some word on the street about the Manet from Chicago going to a private collector, but nothing definite."
Don sighed. "So, bottom line, either we get this hunk of canvas back, or it disappears for a century or so."
"You got it, Don." Colby's smile didn't even qualify as half-hearted. "Where do we go from here?"