As he stepped into a ritzy French restaurant through its enormous carved door, Rick self-consciously straightened his tie.
"I wish we could have lunch at some other place that doesn't require a jacket, not to mention a friggin' tie," he complained about the dress code.
"This is Mrs. Young's favorite restaurant, and she requested we meet up here. Placing her in her familiar surroundings should minimize her stress level when she has to listen to what we are about to tell her." A.J. reminded his brother.
Rick sighed in resignation. "Sometimes, I really don't envy the lifestyle of the rich."
He thought the maitre d' at the podium ahead was being snooty, looking at his modest attire critically, but he felt like grinning when a sudden change swept over every member of the wait staff present as soon as A.J. mentioned Lana Young's name. The maitre d' was now attentive and cordial.
Rick and A.J. were led to one of the best tables where Lana and Cecilia had been seated. They exchanged greetings with the women as they took their seats.
"I've already placed orders for all of us. I hope you don't mind. Everything on the menu here is excellent anyway," Lana told the brothers.
Rick was actually relieved to hear that because he didn't want to look like a fool trying to figure out what to order from a French menu.
Sipping a glass of fine, imported wine the waiter had served promptly, A.J. asked, "Have you been in touch with the police, Mrs. Young?"
"All she knows is Alain's been charged with numerous counts of burglaries, assaults, first degree murder among others, dear," Cecilia answered for her friend. "We haven't watched the news since…since that day."
It had been almost two weeks since Dupré's arrest, and the media coverage had started to die down. The police had kept her name out of the media release to shield the reputation of an upstanding citizen and generous philanthropist from the reporters' relentless scrutiny.
A.J. nodded sympathetically. "I'd like you to know you're not the only person duped by the insidious villain. He wormed his way into the chamber of commerce and the movers-and-shakers society. They are all stunned—they had no idea what kind of man he really is."
"Yeah, the good you thought you saw in him was only an illusion." Rick paused for a moment and gazed into Lana's eyes, which had started to tear up. "Knowing that won't ease your pain. As a matter of fact, you're hurting like hell, I know. Been there. What you already know up here in your head can't take away the pain in your heart. But you were able to work through your pain when you lost your good husband, and he was truly a decent man. I just hate to see you pining away after the likes of Dupré. He's not worthy of you."
He reached for her hand and enveloped it in his.
"So, are you up for this, Lana? If you say 'no,' that's fine with us."
Her eyes downcast, she was silent for full five seconds. When she looked up, they were still glistening with unshed tears, but there was a hint of steely determination behind them as well.
"Yes, I am. I have to face this sooner or later. Might as well get it over with."
"That's the spirit!"
He smiled and patted her hand before letting go of it then he gave his brother a little nod.
"All right, let's start off with his background," said A.J. "As far as we know, he has no claim to any of the Russian aristocratic titles. His Ukrainian Russian mother gave him a Russian middle name, Vasily, which means 'royal.' One of his associates, Guillaume Petrovich, who is also a Russian French, started calling him 'Your Highness' as a joke and it stuck."
"Lies, all those lies…" whispered Lana mournfully.
"He began his criminal career as a young runaway in France. By the age eighteen, he was a seasoned criminal and cunning enough to stay under the police radar. That's why he was allowed to immigrate to America because he didn't have any criminal record except the juvenile cases.
"After running away from home in his early teens, he joined a Russian gang in Paris. One of the members really was a distant relative of a Russian nobleman and had extensive knowledge of jewelry and other finer things in life. He took Dupré under his wing, and when he retired, he let his protégé take over his antique store he'd used as the façade for his fencing activities."
"Why did he move to this country?" asked Cecilia.
"There may be other reasons, but one of them must be expansion. When he settled in the U.S., he obtained an import/export license to set up a new antique shop in our city, but the real purpose was to smuggle the stolen goods out of the country to facilitate his fencing business."
"Yeah, he was shipping the hot merchandise hidden in other antique items to and from France in addition to moving and selling some of the stolen goods across the country," said Rick. "He used his underworld connections to hitch up with Petrovich, who recruited the other men on this side of the pond. He's another member of a Russian crime organization transplanted in America."
"I know Ethan got the writing desk because of a clerical mix-up at the store," Lana interrupted the brothers. "But why didn't he turn in what he found in it to the police? Why didn't he tell me?"
Rick and A.J. knew she had been greatly troubled by her late husband's decision to keep the stolen jewelry.
"Mrs. Young," A.J. said in a calm, measured voice. "I had the privilege of knowing him in person and by reputation. We met at several charity functions. He's one of the most generous, altruistic men I've ever seen."
"Mom also tells me he was extremely analytical, thorough and detail-oriented. For all I know, he was only doing some background research to trace the origins of the items, whether there had been reports on the stolen goods matching the descriptions of what he had. But rest assured that he had no intention of keeping them to himself. He had made an appointment with his attorney just a day before the accident."
"But why didn't he tell me anything about it?"
"For your protection, I guess," said Rick. "Maybe he had some premonition that someone might come after him to get the stuff back sensing how valuable those rocks must be."
"How valuable? Do you have any idea?"
"One appraiser's conservative estimate for everything we found in your Christmas ornaments is upwards of twenty million, possibly much, much more."
Lana and Cecilia were stunned at the monetary value.
"Dupré had already found a few potential buyers for the necklace with blue and pink diamonds before he realized it was missing, and he was desperate to get it and the other pieces back."
"Yeah. Lots of people get killed for a whole lot less, you know," said Rick.
"Do you think…?" Lana paused struggling to form a question she dreaded to ask. "Do you think Alain killed that poor man? Was he killed because he'd sold the desk to Ethan by accident?"
"No." Rick's answer was firm and swift. "Gary Chapman, the murder victim, was a weightlifter, well over 250 and had at least six inches on Dupré. There's no way a puny Frenchy like him could have strangled someone that outweighed him by a hundred pounds unless the vic was incapacitated or threatened with a deadly weapon."
"Besides, a couple of his underlings are cooperating with the investigation to receive reduced charges," said A.J. "They confirmed that it's Petrovich, who killed Chapman, but not because he'd sold the desk to your husband. He'd never worked a day in the antique shop—his work was strictly in the criminal department, burglaries, assaults, among others."
Noticing a puzzled expression on Lana's face, A.J. continued, "According to his accomplices, Chapman dabbled in illicit drugs and started using steroids in order to gain more muscles quickly, but they made him violent and unstable. He also started stealing from Dupré's cache to support his habit. So, Petrovich killed him as a warning to the others."
Lana shuddered at the thought of the violent world in which those criminals inhabited.
"Dupré's charged with the first degree 'cause he's the mastermind of the entire operation," Rick informed her. "Like I said, Alain Dupré you thought you knew doesn't really exist except in the twisted fantasy world you got sucked into. Just keep reminding yourself that the man you were engaged to is not real."
Lana picked at Dover Sole Meuniére, her favorite dish, and knew she was done with it.
"So… What's going to happen next?"
"Dupré will remain in custody 'cause he's a flight risk, and he's been denied bail. It'll be months, possibly years before this case goes to trial if ever."
"Even with the sworn statements from the two men who turned against him?" asked Cecilia.
"In a criminal trial, the burden of proof is on the prosecution side. Sworn statements have little meaning without solid evidence to back them up," said A.J. "Dupré committed thefts and smuggling in France and the U.S. and had a labyrinth of distribution network for the stolen goods. And then there are those antique items taken from countless homes, jewelry stores, museums to catalogue and to trace back to the rightful owners. It may be impossible to put everything together and deliver it in a neat, little package, but the D.A.'s office has to try its best to be thorough because, without proving his criminalities in the burglary and smuggling cases, it won't be able to make the murder charge stick."
An uncomfortable silence stretched for a minute or two at the table as Lana tried to digest so much information all at once.
She finally stopped staring at her unfinished lunch and looked up at A.J. "What'll happen to Alain if he's found guilty?"
"He's not a U.S. citizen; he's a legal resident with a green card. Because he's not a naturalized citizen, his permanent resident status will be revoked if he's convicted for a felony. He will still have to serve the sentence here unless his home country is willing to try and incarcerate him there. If he remains in the U.S. to serve his time, he will be deported to France when he gets out of prison."
A.J. did not say, 'if he's still alive after serving his time,' but it was on everyone's mind, and no one wanted to bring up the possibility of capital punishment.
Cecilia had been mostly quiet during the lunch meeting but could no longer keep silence when she saw a tear trickling down Lana's cheek.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Lana."
She embraced her friend fiercely almost smothering her. "I never meant to hurt you. I'm sorry…so…sorry."
Rick and A.J. had to fight their urge to console the women in tears. Sometimes, it was all right to let tears flow to begin the healing process.
Eventually, Cecilia let her hands fall to her sides and deeply gazed into Lana's eyes.
"Will you ever forgive me…for what I've done?"
"I just couldn't let you marry a man like Alain. I just couldn't…"
"Listen, Ceci," Lana repeated her friend's name, her voice sounding a little stronger than before. "I would have done the same if I'd been in your shoes. That's what friends are for. N'est-ce pas?"
They hugged each other and began to cry all over again. After a few minutes, their waiter came by to rescue the Simons brothers from the awkward situation.
"Excuse me, ladies. Are you all right? Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Émile. We're making a spectacle of ourselves, aren't we?" Lana smiled feebly. "We're all right, but thank you for asking."
She rose from her seat holding her clutch purse. "Now boys, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to the ladies room. My makeup needs a major overhaul."
"So does mine." Cecilia giggled also rising from her chair.
A.J. kicked his brother's shin under the table to remind him that gentlemen were expected to stand up should a woman leave or arrive at the table.
When the two women returned to the table from the ladies' sanctuary, they noticed that Rick had eaten everything on his plate, and he was still munching on the last piece of baguette.
"I hope the food was to your liking, honey," said Lana with a tiny smile.
"Yeah, you bet!" Rick smiled back. "Even the stuff with green beans. What did you say it's called, A.J.?"
"Oh, ha, ha."
"No, seriously. 'Haricots vert' means green beans."
"Even green beans can sound pompous in French," groaned Rick making everyone around him laugh.
"Like I said, I really enjoyed the food here, but now I feel like going out for dessert."
"But this restaurant offers an excellent selection of desserts."
"No doubt about that, but I want something American, steeped in the Simon family tradition."
"Hmm… What could it be?" Lana's eyes twinkled with curiosity.
"Ice cream." Rick grinned broadly. "Dad used to take us out for a double scoop to cheer us up when we were down or had a tough day."
"That was just his excuse to satisfy his sweet tooth, dear." There was a hint of smile in Cecilia's voice.
"Maybe, but it worked on us," said Rick shrugging his shoulders. "So, what do you say, Lana? Wanna go grab a scoop of excellent ice cream? I know a great place that opened recently."
"Come on. It'll do you good. Trust me."
Sensing the entire Simon family looking at her expectantly, Lana gave in. "Oh, all right, I suppose."
"Great!" Rick beamed and offered his arm to her. "You won't regret it!"
Leaning against A.J.'s arm, Cecilia silently watched them head for the door. She then looked up to gaze into his eyes and mouthed the words, 'thank you.'
His heart soared knowing that he and Rick had made their dear mother happy, that they had been able to make a difference in her life and Lana's.
When they stepped out of the restaurant, they spotted Rick and Lana, bathed in the dappled sunlight through the tree branches, walking ahead of them hand in hand.
"I think she's going to be all right, honey," whispered Cecilia.
A.J. merely nodded and smiled at her and at this perfect afternoon.