Monday, 13 February 2012

Welcome to Andrew Grey

Why haven't I had the awesome Andrew Grey on my blog before? This needs to be rectified this instant.

Over to you, Andrew...

Artistic Pursuits is the third story in the Art series and I was inspired by a newspaper article I remembered reading when I was living in Milwaukee.  The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music is located in an old mansion on Milwaukee’s lakefront, and a number of years ago, they needed money to renovate the building.  It had been used for decades and was getting run down.  The cost to complete the renovations was about four million dollars and at the time they had no idea how to raise that much money.  They discussed a number of options including selling their Tiffany windows to raise the money they needed.  Those windows were irreplaceable and the thought of selling them galvanized the board and everyone at the school.  Thankfully they developed a plan to renovate the building by raising money and through donations.  Working tirelessly, they raised the money they needed to renovate the building and save their windows.  A call went out to the community and they responded with money, materials, and donations of all kinds.  I can still remember the pictures in the newspaper of the finished renovations.  Years later, the idea hit me and I decided to use that as a basis and explore what would happen if, after all that work, the windows they’d raised money to keep from selling, were stolen.  That idea was the basis for Artistic Pursuits. 

Blurb: Frank Jennings is an FBI agent looking for redemption.  Leslie Carlton is an Interpol agent looking for a thief. Attraction flares from the moment they meet on a case searching for a stolen triptych of unique Tiffany windows, but after a single night of stunning passion, Leslie is called back to London to continue his search there.  

When the case heats up again, Leslie returns to the States—and to Frank—but their investigation is complicated by their tumultuous feelings. Is it possible for two dedicated detectives to pursue each other while they’re tracking down stolen art and the unscrupulous man who steals it?


“MORNING, Mr. Temple,” a child on the sidewalk called and waved, and he waved back through the open car window before turning off Prospect Avenue and into the parking lot of the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music. Parking in his reserved spot with its small sign that the faculty had gotten him for Christmas, Jerry smiled and turned off the local classical music station before rolling up his car windows and turning off the engine. Once out of the car, Jerry walked across the lot and around to the front of what he considered to be one of the most amazing buildings in town. Still carrying his briefcase and coffee, but no longer really paying much attention to either, Jerry walked around the side of the building and stood looking at what had once been the round conservatory of the grand mansion that served as the music school’s home, and now served as their performance space.

“It’s a wonderful thing you did.”

Jerry turned and saw an old, elegantly dressed woman standing behind him. “Excuse me?” he said politely.

She turned and pointed to one of the high-rise buildings that surrounded them. “I live up there. Damned retirement community full of—” She paused and shuddered slightly. “—old people who do nothing but sit around and fart their lives away. My apartment has a view of your building, and I watched as you did all those wonderful restorations. It’s a good thing you did, to save this building. I remember coming here once as a child.”

“Were you here when the Marsons owned it?” Jerry asked, and he saw her nod before smiling at him and continuing on her morning walk. “Have a good day, ma’am.”

She turned and gave him another smile. “You too, young man,” she answered before continuing down the sidewalk. Jerry turned his attention back to the building. He’d never thought that a building could become so important to him, but this one certainly had. Built at a time when the Milwaukee lakefront had been lined with grand homes like this for miles, this was one of few that remained in all of downtown, and the only one right on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. When he’d been offered the post of executive director four years before, he almost hadn’t taken the job because the facilities at the school were in such bad shape. The mansion had fallen into disrepair from years of use and too little maintenance. Jerry’s first order of business, after reviewing the curriculum, had been to put together detailed architectural and decorative plans to renovate and restore the building. That had turned out to be the easy part. The hard part had been how to pay the multimillion-dollar price tag.

Jerry cringed as he remembered standing in front of the board to present his plan. “We all agree,” the board chairman had said, “something must be done, but how do we pay for it?” He’d looked to the other board members, and they all had the same look of resignation. “I suppose we’ll have to sell the windows.” Heads bobbed, and a look of sadness came over each and every board member. One of the highlights of the once-grand mansion was a set of three large Tiffany “dogwood” windows that decorated the landing of the main staircase. They were stunning, and it had nearly broken Jerry’s heart, as well as the board’s, to think of selling.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Jerry had answered. “I took the liberty of calling the Milwaukee Journal, and they have agreed to do an article on our plans for the renovations. With your permission, I’d like to share our plans with them as well as our plight. I’m hoping that somehow we can raise the money we need without selling the windows. I’d like to ask that we hold off on a decision for a few months.”

The board had agreed, the newspaper article had led to a television interview, and the money began to flow in. What had surprised everyone, including Jerry, was that while they got some large contributions, they also got many, many small donations from ordinary people throughout town, people who had never had a connection to the school, but who wanted to help save the windows. Within a few months, they had the money to begin work, and within a year, they’d reached their goal. And Jerry had remained front and center in their campaign to “Save the Tiffanys.” At the completion of the renovations, the newspaper had done a long article on the entire saga, as well as some of the things they’d found while doing the work, such as an incredible hand-blown chandelier inside a boarded-up fireplace.

At the unveiling, the conservatory had invited all the donors, big and small, to an open house, and thousands of people had shown up. Jerry and his staff had spent the entire day proudly giving tours of the building that concluded with a trip up the staircase to see the windows that they’d not only helped to save, but had given enough money that the conservatory had been able to have the windows themselves restored and strengthened as part of the renovation. That day had been one of the most amazing and incredible days of Jerry’s life.

Turning away from the building, Jerry’s thoughts turned back to the day’s work. Walking back around to the front of the building, Jerry listened to the birds for a second before setting down his case and unlocking the front door. He deactivated the alarm before pushing the door open. Students were already arriving behind him, and Jerry said good morning as he picked up his leather case of papers and led the way inside.

As he did every morning, Jerry walked to the base of the stairs and gazed upward. But this morning, instead of light blues, rich whites tinged with pink, and long brown and black branches with delicate dogwood blossoms clinging to them, all he saw was the sky outside. Jerry stood stock still as first his case and then his cup of coffee hit the shining parquet floor.

Chapter One

A FILE whacked harder than necessary on his desk, and Franklin looked up from where he was filling out a report. “Try not to screw up this one too badly,” his supervisor said without a hint of his usual humor, and Franklin knew exactly why. His last assignment hadn’t gone exactly according to plan, and one of the men on the team had been shot. Franklin took a deep breath and stopped himself from lashing out at the man the way every fiber in his being urged him to. What happened hadn’t been his fault, and Franklin knew it, as did everyone else, but that didn’t seem to matter—they needed someone to blame, and he was it.

“Nice show of support,” Franklin muttered under his breath. As the junior member of the team, he knew he was going to take crap for everything that happened, but he didn’t have to like it.

“Hey!” Harvey, his supervisor, snapped, leaning close to him. “We all know you got bad information, but you messed up because you didn’t double-check the address on your way over. You could have and should have. Because you went to the wrong house first, you lost the element of surprise, and Stevens got shot. You were in charge of the operation because you asked to be, so you take the lumps.” Harvey’s expression softened a little. “Everyone messes up; it’ll pass.”

“Yeah, but not everyone messes up and gets someone shot,” Frank retorted, and that was the heart of the issue. Frank knew he’d made a mistake, one that could have cost someone their life. Stevens didn’t blame him, but everyone else did, and more importantly, he blamed himself.

“So make up for it with this one,” Harvey told him before turning and walking into his glass-walled office near the corner. Frank opened the folder and began to read. As he did, he wondered why Milwaukee PD had turned this case over to the FBI. It seemed like a simple theft. Persons unknown had stolen a set of valuable windows from the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music. Sure, the items stolen had been valuable, but that didn’t warrant an investigation by federal agents.

“Don’t go to the wrong house this time,” Martinson taunted as he passed Frank’s desk.

“Thanks, Martinson. Don’t trip over your own feet,” Frank retorted with little humor. He’d be damned if he was taking flak from the department geek. Yes, he’d made a mistake, but Martinson was a total fool, and Frank couldn’t figure out why he was still around except that the man was great with numbers and computers, just not people. Martinson continued on his way, completely unfazed, and Frank watched as Martinson nearly fell into his chair, then looked at the floor, probably trying to figure out what he’d tripped over.

“Frank,” Harvey called from his office, “you finish reading that case file?”

“Yes.” Frank got up and walked into Harvey’s office. “Why’d this get bumped to us? Looks like a straightforward theft.” Frank stood in front of Harvey’s desk. He hadn’t been invited to sit, and no one sat in Harvey’s office unless invited.

“If it were, we wouldn’t have the case,” Harvey said, staring at Frank, waiting for him to continue. “So….”

Frank fidgeted slightly, knowing there was something he was missing, and it pissed him off. “There must be more to it. I saw the reports about this theft a few days ago. These windows are worth millions, but shit… who’s going to buy them? They have to be nearly impossible to sell. You think they were stolen to order?”

“That’s what you need to find out. I need you to get down there right away. The reason we’ve been called in is because this is bigger than a simple theft, or at least MPD and Interpol think so. Interpol is sending some agent of theirs, her name’s Leslie something, and she’ll meet you at the scene in half an hour. The school’s director is still pretty upset about this whole thing, so do your best not to piss the guy off.” That was Harvey’s idea of a dismissal, and Frank turned toward the door and stopped.

“Can I ask why you assigned this to me?”

“You can ask anything you want. Doesn’t mean I’m going to answer,” Harvey said before turning his attention to his computer screen, beginning to swear under his breath. Frank made a hasty retreat. Everyone knew to get the hell out when Harvey tried to do anything with computers. E-mail alone was a challenge, and more than one keyboard had been thrown through his doorway.

Frank grabbed his keys off his desk along with the file and headed out of the office building, driving through the heavy downtown traffic to the lakeshore. He pulled into the conservatory parking lot and got out of his blue sedan that just screamed “Federal Agent.” Walking around toward the front door, he saw what had to be a student carrying a violin and bow, and said, “I’m looking for Mr. Temple.”

“He’s in his office.” She pointed the way with the bow and then hurried up the stairs. Frank couldn’t help looking around the room before walking in the direction she’d pointed and knocking quietly on a closed door.

“Mr. Temple,” Frank said when the door opened, “I’m Agent Frank Jennings from the FBI. We’ve been called in to help investigate the theft of your windows.”

“Thank God,” the man responded, and he opened the door fully, indicating for Frank to come into the office. “I’ve been frantic for two days, and I’m wondering when we’ll get our windows back.” Mr. Temple motioned Frank to a chair and sat in the one opposite.

“That’s what I’m here to help with. Can you answer a few questions for me?”

“Of course. Anything to help get them returned. They were the source of inspiration for many of our students, and it seems wrong for them to be gone,” Mr. Temple said, and Frank could see he seemed genuinely upset.

“Do you have pictures of the windows? The ones in the file I received weren’t very clear. And I was wondering when you saw the windows last.”

“They were still in place Monday night, and when I came in Tuesday morning, they were gone,” he answered easily, and Frank continued to watch him for any hint of deception, but saw none.

“Are there lights on that side of the building?” Frank pulled out a pad and began taking notes. Mr. Temple got out of his chair, and Frank noticed that he was a strikingly handsome man, even if he was somewhat older than Frank usually liked. Keep your attention on the case, Frank reminded himself as he stood up as well, but he couldn’t help noticing the trim cut of Temple’s suit and his large, bright eyes. Blinking a few times, Frank cleared the lascivious thoughts and got his mind back on work.

“There are,” Temple added a little sheepishly, leading him out of the office and down a hallway before opening what looked like a closet door. “When we did the renovations to the building, we had lights installed on that side of the building to illuminate the windows in the evening.” Mr. Temple pointed to a timer mounted near the electrical box. “The lights come on when it gets dark and go off at 11:00 p.m., when we close the building.” He looked dejected. “To think if we wouldn’t have tried to cut costs on the lighting, we might still have our windows.” Frank wanted to reassure him, but he couldn’t, at least not yet, so he stayed quiet and kept his eyes open.

“Mr. Temple, there’s someone asking for you at the front door,” a young man said from behind them.

“Thank you, Jimmy. Tell them we’ll be right out.”

“That could be the person I’m supposed to meet. My supervisor said a woman was going to meet me here.” Frank wasn’t sure how much he should tell Mr. Temple about who he was meeting, so he kept quiet and followed Mr. Temple back down the hallway and toward the front door.

Frank saw a tall man standing near the front door, and since this wasn’t who he was waiting for, he figured he’d go around the building before Leslie arrived. He was about to head outside when the man stopped him. “Are you Frank Jennings?” he asked in a pronounced British accent with a half smile, and when Frank nodded, the man continued, “I’m Leslie Carlton. I believe you’re expecting me.”

Frank stared. When Harvey had said Leslie, Frank had expected a woman, and Harvey obviously had as well, but instead, Frank was looking into the deepest blue eyes of the most amazingly attractive man he’d seen in a long time. Remembering where he was and what he should be doing, Frank extended his hand. “Sorry. I’m Frank Jennings, and this is Mr. Temple, the director of the conservatory.” Leslie shook both their hands.

“If it’s okay, we’d like to have a look ’round,” Leslie said.

“Of course,” Mr. Temple said before giving Frank a confused look and then walking back toward his office.

“I take it I’m not what you were expecting,” Leslie stated as they walked around the outside of the building, as though he knew exactly what Frank had been thinking.

“No, I guess not,” Frank answered honestly as he nervously rubbed the back of his neck with his hand.

“Happens sometimes,” Leslie said, but he added nothing more.

“What’s your interest in this, anyway?” Frank asked after some extended silence. “Isn’t this a bit off from your usual area?”

“Yes and no,” Leslie answered as they reached the area outside below where the windows had been. “I heard about the theft on the telly when I was attending a class in forensic analysis in Chicago and thought this might be related to a case I’ve been working on for years.” Leslie looked up at the building and then down at the ground. Frank did the same, but wasn’t sure what they were going to see. The theft had been two days earlier, and the local police officers had been all through this area already.

“I could always send you the reports. You didn’t need to come all this way,” Frank said a little more tersely than he intended, but Leslie didn’t seem to be paying any attention. Frank figured the last thing he needed was some Brit on his tail the entire time he was trying to work.

“That may not help,” Leslie finally answered before kneeling down in the grass. “Looks like at least two men, maybe three,” Leslie said as he stood up, wiping the dirt off his hands. “See those indentations in the grass?” Leslie said, pointing at marks Frank could barely see. “That’s where they placed one of the stepladders, and here’s where they placed the other. Probably strung a plank between them, and that’s what they stood on to remove the windows. Lucky thing they didn’t fall apart, which probably means they knew how to handle the windows.” Leslie looked back up toward the vacant space where the windows had been.

“How do you know?” Frank asked.

“Hundred-year-old windows like that will fall apart if they aren’t handled with a lot of care, and since there aren’t bits of glass all over the turf, it’s a good guess they got the windows down in one piece. Probably had frames made so they could carry them.” Without further comment, Leslie walked toward the parking lot. “Probably parked about here,” Leslie added, looking back toward the building, and Frank felt a bit like the newbie he was as he trailed behind the other man like some sort of puppy dog. “With the lights behind here off, and the tree here, this area would be dark and perfect for loading the windows.”

“How do you know all this?” Frank finally got up the courage to ask. He wasn’t particularly interested in showing his own inexperience with things like this.

“I’ve been working cat burglar and art-theft cases for close to ten years. I’ve seen all kinds of thefts, some definitely more clever than others. This one took some logistical prowess, but as long as they had cover, the street traffic masked any noise they made. Shall we have a look inside to see what that can tell us?” Frank nodded, and they walked back toward the front door of the music school. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m surprised they don’t have a more senior man on a case like this.”

Frank’s hackles raised, and then he looked at Leslie’s face and saw no malice, only curiosity. “I guess you usually handle bigger things than this. Sorry you’re stuck with me,” Frank added sarcastically.

Leslie stopped walking. “Don’t get your bollocks in a wad, I wasn’t being disparaging.”

Frank didn’t know what the hell Leslie was saying. “Let’s go inside.” Frank wanted to get this over with as soon as possible. Leslie could look at whatever he wanted, and then Frank could get to work hunting down the people who’d taken the windows, and Leslie could get back on a plane to jolly old England. Frank led the way into the building and up the stairs to the landing. The opening where the windows had been had glass on the inside, and Frank could see where the leaded windows had once been, as well as where the outer protective layer of glass had been. “It looks like they took the outer glass as well as the leaded windows,” Frank commented, and Leslie gave him a quizzical look.

“What makes you say that?” Leslie asked.

“Because, as you said, there was no broken glass outside. They must have taken off both the outer glass and the windows themselves, along with part of the casing. There’s an alarm in the building, and the police report said that Mr. Temple deactivated the alarm normally that morning.”

Leslie nodded and continued looking at the window casing. “Good thinking. They were careful and knew what in bloody hell they were doing, that’s for sure.”

“I’d say so. They left no prints, and other than the windows being gone and the indentations in the grass that you saw, it looks like they left no other indication that they were here.”

“True,” Leslie said as he stood back up. “But that alone tells us something. These people were professionals. They had been here to look over the building at least once, and probably more than that. My guess is that they were even inside the building at one point. Then they would have seen the way the windows were mounted and realized that taking them out from the outside was easier than from the inside.”

“The police checked out the students,” Frank offered. “Wait a minute, if they were inside, they could have attended some kind of performance.” Frank hurried down the stairs and along the hallway to Mr. Temple’s office, knocking quickly before entering. “Have you had any performances lately?”

“Yes. We have recitals quite regularly,” Mr. Temple answered, standing up to open a file drawer. He searched for a few moments and then handed Frank a few pamphlets. “These are the programs from the recitals we’ve held in the last six months.”

“Can I keep these for now?” Frank wasn’t sure what good they would do, but in his gut, he felt like he was onto something.

“Of course,” Mr. Temple said, and Frank thanked him and retraced his steps, finding Leslie standing in the entry area of the building.

“I don’t think we’re going to find much more up there,” he said, indicating where the windows had been. “Would it be okay if I catch a ride with you back to your office?”

“Of course,” Frank answered, and he led the way to his car, unlocking the doors. Once they were both inside, Frank started the engine and made his way back through traffic to the office. In the lobby, he helped Leslie procure a visitor’s badge, and they rode in the “lift,” as Leslie called it, to his floor.

Leslie followed him to Harvey’s office, and Frank made introductions before providing a verbal report of what they’d found. “Can we speak privately?” Leslie asked Harvey, and Frank stepped out of the office, closing the door behind him. Walking to his desk, Frank watched Leslie and Harvey talking inside the office. Frank knew what they were talking about, and once they were done, Frank expected that Leslie would have requested—how had he put it?—a more senior man on this case. Placing the programs in the file with the other materials, Frank settled in his chair and began typing his notes into a report to add to the file. But as he worked, he found his attention drawn to the glass walls of Harvey’s office. Frank had seen how attractive Leslie was, but he’d had his mind on the case. Now, watching him as he spoke, what he saw was mostly from the back, but what a back it was. Even in the suit he was wearing, Frank could see the man’s broad shoulders. At one point, Leslie slipped off his coat, and Frank got a glimpse of a nice butt encased in suit pants.

“What’s got you so captivated?” Martinson asked as he stopped by Frank’s desk. “Who’s the guy with Harvey?” Frank breathed a sigh of relief that Martinson thought he was just curious as opposed to lusting over the other man. The bureau itself was tolerant, but the other guys were a completely different matter. Frank had heard enough derogatory remarks over the year he’d been in the office to know to keep his personal life to himself and not let on that he was interested in guys. He wouldn’t lie outright, but he wasn’t going to volunteer anything, either.

“Leslie Carlton, he’s with Interpol.” Frank did not elaborate on his suspicions about what they were talking about. He’d get the news soon enough, and Martinson would probably stop by to rub it in again. Besides, while he might be attracted to the guy, and Leslie pushed all Frank’s buttons, that didn’t mean Leslie was even interested, or that Frank would actually be seeing him again after today. Frank continued watching Leslie, and eventually Martinson went on his way. Frank found he was fascinated with the way Leslie’s body moved, gracefully, like the way he thought a dancer or gymnast might move. When he saw Harvey’s attention shift outside the windows of his office, Frank lowered his eyes, pulled himself out of his momentary daydream, and got back to his report.

“Jennings,” Harvey bellowed over the noise in the room, and while Frank didn’t look, he knew every head in the room had just shifted to look at him. And he knew they were wondering what he’d done now. One mistake, and you were branded a screw-up for life. Well, maybe not, but there were times it felt that way. Frank stood up, grabbed the case file off his desk, and walked to Harvey’s office, where he was ushered inside and the door closed behind him. This time Frank was motioned toward a chair, and he sat opposite Leslie while Harvey sat at his desk. “It seems we may have more than just a simple theft here, and Leslie has asked and I’ve agreed….”

Here it comes, Frank thought. Leslie had thought him inexperienced and green and had asked to work with someone else, not that he could blame the guy.

“Frank, are you listening?” Harvey said, and he realized both men were looking directly at him. “Like I said, Leslie has asked to be a part of your case, and I’ve agreed to let him work with you for the duration. He has a number of insights that will be invaluable in returning the stolen windows to their rightful owners.” Harvey’s expression softened a little, and Frank wondered why. “Leslie tells me that you have some interesting insights about the case.”

“Well, yes. I think the thieves had to have scoped out the inside as well as the outside of the building.” Frank opened the case file and pulled out the programs. “These are the recitals they’ve held over the last six months, and I think those would be a great place to start. If I was a thief and I wanted to scope out a place like that without being noticed, I’d blend into a crowd. And what would be better than a recital for getting into the building largely unnoticed?” Frank felt pretty proud of himself. Leslie might have figured out what had happened, at least in part, but Frank at least had an idea for going forward.

“How does this help us?” Leslie asked levelly, and Frank turned to look at him, seeing him nod slightly.

“Well, if you’ve ever been to a recital,” Frank began—he’d been to plenty of his sister’s when they were kids—“every father takes a video of the performance for posterity. I thought I’d ask the director for some of the parents who habitually make videos, and maybe we might see something unusual. If we do, we can run it through facial recognition and see if we get a hit. I know it’s a bit of a longshot….” Frank wasn’t sure it would pan out, but it was the only idea he could come up with. There was remarkably little evidence to go on, and much of it had been compromised by the local police and normal operation of the school, at least as far as the actual crime scene went, but that was to be expected after a few days.

“Go ahead and get on it. I’ll let Leslie, here, fill you in on the other aspects of the case,” Harvey explained, and Frank took that as a dismissal. Standing up, he opened the office door and stepped outside, with Leslie right behind him.

“So, where to?” Leslie asked with a pleased smile on his face.

Frank didn’t know what that meant, but he did his best to keep his attention on the case, as opposed to the way Leslie’s smile sent a fluttery feeling through his gut. “Back to the conservatory. I hope Mr. Temple can give us a few leads on where to start with recital videos.”

“I hope so. It would be a real cock-up if we had to run down the parents of every student,” Leslie said in his heavy accent. It made everything Leslie said sound sexy as hell. Frank reminded himself that he had no idea if Leslie liked guys, and he certainly had no intention of ever getting involved with anyone he worked with, even marginally. After making their way back to the elevators, they rode down to the parking level and got into Frank’s car, then headed back out in traffic.

Thankfully, Mr. Temple was able to give them the names of a number of “videophile” parents, along with their addresses. Frank and Leslie spent much of the rest of the morning and afternoon running all over town, and by the end of the day, they had almost a dozen different tapes of various recitals. One of the parents had taken video at almost every one, while most had taken only some of them. “There has to be a solid week’s worth of video here,” Frank said as they headed back toward the office in the early evening. “This is going to take longer than I thought.”

“Do we have to watch all this at the office?” Leslie asked, and Frank saw him yawn.

“No. I have a good player at my place,” Frank offered. “We could get some dinner and go there. I don’t have the enhancement capabilities that we have at the office, but if we see something, we can note it and look at it in more depth here at the office tomorrow. Where are you staying while you’re in town?”

“I hadn’t arranged for a hotel. I wasn’t expecting to be here until I saw the spot on the telly. I was supposed to go back to London after the conference tomorrow, but this could be the break I’ve been looking for. Could we pick up my bag at the train station? I’ll arrange for a hotel.”

“You can stay at my place, if you like,” Frank offered. He knew he was probably going to regret it, but the man was already tired, and they still had work to do.

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Leslie said, though Frank was already guiding the car toward the train station. Out in front, Frank pulled up to the curb, and Leslie walked into the station, returning a few minutes later pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him. Frank popped the trunk, and Leslie put the bag inside.

“How did you get them to hold the bag for you?” In the post-9/11 world, luggage without an owner was usually treated as though it carried a bomb.

“I asked the attendant at the counter and showed him my badge. I think he took pity on me because of my accent and let me put the bag in his office. I’m surprised you don’t have lockers at the stations like we do in Europe,” Leslie said once he’d gotten back in the car. Frank shrugged, not really wanting to explain the post-terrorist overreactions that the entire country had gone through for the last decade.

“So why don’t you tell me what you think is going on,” Frank said as he put the car in gear.

“Over the past ten years,” Leslie began, “there have been a number of thefts of Tiffany windows, mostly from mausoleums in New York, but some in London, Paris, and elsewhere in Europe. On the surface, they don’t seem related, and the thefts themselves probably aren’t. Except that more often than not, when we do catch the thieves, we find that the goods are already out of the country and have been sold.”

“I suppose that’s to be expected—it’s harder to trace the goods internationally,” Frank supplied, and Leslie nodded.

“But one name keeps coming up again and again: Koshigawa. Most of the trails of these stolen windows lead to him in some roundabout way. The problem is that Japan has property laws that he hides behind. We call it the two-year rule. In Japan, if you purchased property and you’ve had it for two years, and it turns out to be stolen, you get to keep it regardless. Koshigawa hides behind this rule, and has amassed a huge collection of art, including Tiffany windows. The bastard has a house built of glass outside Osaka so he can display them. He calls it his museum. I’ve personally tracked more than a dozen windows stolen from collections in Europe back to him, but each and every time, the Japanese authorities claim the two-year rule, and we can’t get near him.” Leslie got more and more excited as he talked. “Last year, I investigated the theft of a huge, three-meter-tall waterfall window that came out of a family collection in Vienna. I tracked it as far as an antique dealer outside Paris who has a history of selling suspect items. I missed recovering the window by less than a week.” Frustration filled Leslie’s voice.

“Let me guess—he’d shipped it to Japan,” Frank said.

“Exactly. The address turned out to be a front company that received the shipment and then promptly closed up shop and completely disappeared. There has been nothing since, and how much do you want to bet that in a little more than a year, it will show up in someone’s collection, probably Koshigawa’s, and there’ll be bollocks we can do about it.”

Frank navigated the streets through the northern Milwaukee suburb where he lived and let Leslie continue talking.

“I’ve never heard of him actually contracting a specific theft. He’s usually just a buyer,” Leslie continued, “but I have no doubt that he would love to get his hands on the windows that were stolen. A triptych of windows that are intact and have never been on the market could be too much for him to resist. It’s like the Holy Grail to him.” Leslie shifted in the passenger seat. “I want this bastard bad. He’s a thief just as much as the people who steal the windows in the first place, because he and those like him help provide the market that drives this type of theft.”

Frank pulled up in front of his house and parked his car, turning off the engine. “Then we need to catch the thieves before the windows can be sold and shipped out of the country, because as you said, once they leave, they’re beyond us to recover.” Frank got out of the car and walked around to the trunk. After pulling out Leslie’s suitcase, he lifted out the box of videotapes and DVDs before closing the trunk and leading Leslie up the walk to his small house.

“This is really nice,” Leslie commented once they were inside. Frank opened the windows throughout the house to let the lake breeze flow through. Then he led Leslie upstairs and showed him the guest room.

“You can stay here until you decide what you want to do,” Frank suggested, and Leslie set his suitcase on the floor near the foot of the bed before following Frank back downstairs. Frank grabbed the box of videos off the hallway table as he led them into the media room. “I can order a pizza, if you like,” Frank offered.

“That would be good. Thank you,” Leslie replied, and Frank picked up the phone, pressing the speed dial for the local delivery.

“Is there anything you especially like?” Frank asked as he heard the pizza place answer, and Leslie shook his head. Frank placed his usual order but made it a large, and hung up. “They’ll be here in half an hour. Would you like a beer?” Frank opened the refrigerator door and pulled out two bottles of Samuel Adams, carrying them to where Leslie was sitting on the sofa. When he handed the bottle to him, Leslie took it and stared back at Frank like he’d broken some sort of protocol. “If you don’t want a beer, I have something else,” Frank offered, wondering what he’d done to offend him.

“No. I apologize, I forgot you Yanks serve your beer practically frozen.” Leslie set the bottle on a coaster. “I’ll let it come up to temperature.”

Frank had no idea what to say or do. “I have one that’s in the case,” Frank offered.

“This is fine, thank you,” Leslie said, but Frank could tell it wasn’t fine, so he went and retrieved one of the bottles from the basement and gave that one to Leslie. That was obviously much better, because the smile he got this time bordered on radiant. “Perfect.” Leslie opened the bottle, and Frank put the first video in the player and grabbed the remote. “We need to pay attention to the crowds and try to ignore the actual performers,” Leslie explained, and Frank swallowed the smartass reply that threatened to bubble up as he took his place on the sofa. “But you probably already knew that, didn’t you, mate?”

Frank sipped his beer as cover and nodded as the video began to play. It took him about five minutes before he muted the volume, and both men looked at each other and laughed. “If they were truly casing the place during one of these recitals, they’ve already been punished enough,” Frank quipped, and Leslie laughed a deep rich laugh that Frank found incredibly attractive, and he could not help watching him out of the corner of his eye before returning his attention to the screen. Most of the video was centered on the performers during the performance, but afterward, this one continued rolling as their daughter joined them, and even out through the building to the outside. The two men continued talking, and Frank mentioned they should have that portion of the video copied out and enhanced. After making a note, he ejected the disk, placing it in the case, and put another one in the player. “Rather than trying to memorize faces, let’s note crowd-type scenes that we can review tomorrow.”

“Good idea. You might see if they could remove the scenes and string them together. That way we could see if any faces jump out at us,” Leslie suggested.

The video began, and Frank saw another performance, keeping the volume muted. He was already starting to think this was a futile effort. This video was only the performance and showed no one else. By the time the video ended, the doorbell rang, and Frank walked to the door, paid for the delivery and returned to the media room.

Leslie had made himself comfortable, and Frank nearly tripped when he entered the room. Leslie’s legs were spread enticingly, his jacket and tie neatly laid over the back of a chair, his collar loosened, shirt clinging seductively to his chest. Leslie’s long, shining, auburn hair, which must have been gathered and hidden in the collar of his jacket, now flowed loosely and hung below his shoulders like long strands of silk. Frank prided himself on having good powers of observation and he wondered just how he’d missed that. The man looked like sex on wheels, and the casual look on his face made Frank think that he had no idea how attractive he appeared. Frank only hoped that the effect Leslie was having on him wasn’t noticeable. Regaining his balance, Frank set the pizza on the table. “Would you like another beer? I have plenty.”

“Thanks, mate.” Leslie tipped the bottle to his mouth, and Frank watched his throat, stifling a groan as Leslie finished the beer and then handed him the bottle. For a few seconds, Frank thought he might have been enticing him on purpose, but that had to be his imagination. Taking the bottle, Frank hurried out of the room, breathing deeply as he tried to clear his mind of the filthy thoughts that kept moving front and center whenever he got a good look at the stunning Brit.

Frank took his time getting another round, standing in the cool basement, hoping the temperatures would cool off his libido, which seemed to be running a little rampant. While he was out of Leslie’s sight, Frank adjusted his pants to make things more comfortable, grabbed a beer for Leslie, and climbed the stairs. On his way through, he grabbed another beer for himself from the fridge.

The video had ended, and Leslie was removing the disk. “This one had nothing,” he explained as he put the next disk in the player. Frank had to force himself to look away from where Leslie knelt in front of the television, pants clinging to a perfect rear end and what looked like strong thighs, straining the legs of his pants. He had to get hold of himself. Leslie had given him no indication that he was interested, and Frank was not about to find out the hard way. Leslie was a colleague, at least for now, and Frank was not particularly willing to be rejected or to get involved with someone he worked with, even if he had an indication Leslie might be so inclined. Frank could not allow that to happen. Rumors of his orientation would spread through the office faster than the news of him and his team raiding the wrong house.

Frank waited for Leslie to finish with the video before he handed him the beer and then turned away before sitting on the sofa and concentrating on the movie. Reaching for the pizza box, Frank stopped when he realized his lust-infused mind had completely forgotten the plates. Jumping up, he went and grabbed two from the cupboard, handing a plate to Leslie without really looking at him, and took his seat once again before reaching for his slice.

Hour after mind-numbing hour, they watched home video after home video. They’d gotten a number of crowd scenes, in addition to multitudes of hours of performance after performance. “I don’t think I can take much more of this,” Leslie said with a yawn. “My body’s still a bit on London time.”

“Thankfully, there’s only one more. Go on upstairs, and I’ll check this one out before coming up myself.” Frank checked the clock on the player and realized it was well after midnight. He put in the last video and started it, feeling the sofa cushions shift as Leslie got up. Frank tried to force himself not to look, but the temptation was too great. Frank shifted his eyes upward as Leslie stretched his arms over his head, and he caught a glimpse of pale skin just above the handsome man’s belt. Frank stared as long as he dared, looking back to the television as Leslie’s arms lowered and he sat back on the sofa without saying a word. As they watched, Leslie began to shift slightly on the sofa. Frank looked over and saw Leslie’s eyes drift closed as Leslie tilted toward him. Leslie caught himself and sat back upright, but not before Frank felt his warmth and the slight touch of his arm.

Frank forced himself to watch the video and keep his mind off the man sitting next to him. This infatuation was ridiculous. Yes, Leslie was attractive, and yes, he seemed to press all Frank’s buttons from a physical perspective, but Frank had already had enough of the type of relationship where he relied strictly on how someone looked. He’d learned that lesson big-time already, and didn’t really want to remember the details. Watching the video, he fast-forwarded through the actual performance and looked over the people behind the person doing the speaking, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, and no one did something as obvious as trying to hide their face. Marking that portion of the video, Frank packed up all the videos, making sure to segregate the ones with pictures of the crowd before standing up. “Come on, Les, let’s go on up to bed.”

“Leslie, my name’s Leslie,” he corrected haughtily, and Frank stopped himself from rolling his eyes.

“Okay, Les, let’s go.” Frank wasn’t going to rise to the bait, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to push it a little, either, and he saw Leslie roll his eyes, but he didn’t correct him a second time. Instead, he stood up, stretching and yawning again as Frank threw away the remains of dinner and began turning out the lights before they headed up the stairs.

Frank let Leslie use the bathroom first, waiting until he heard the door open and footsteps pad across the small hallway before opening his door. In the bathroom, it looked as though a toiletries bomb had gone off. The towels Leslie had used had been thrown on the floor, and his things sat everywhere around the sink. “What—you think I’m the maid who’s supposed to clean up after you?” Frank muttered, and he began picking things up, shoving Leslie’s stuff into his kit and placing it on the shelf over the sink. He picked up the towels and hung them up before getting cleaned up himself and heading back to his room, muttering under his breath.

As he stepped across the hall, he saw Leslie’s door open and a startled expression from his guest. “Oh, I was about to shower before bed.” Frank saw Leslie look toward the bathroom and color. “Sorry about the mess. I forgot some things, and I didn’t realize you were using the same bathroom.” Leslie seemed genuinely contrite, and Frank felt his anger melt away, replaced by the thrill of seeing Leslie wearing nothing but a towel.

“No problem. Do you need me to get you up in the morning?”

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Leslie replied. “Just knock me up when you get up.” Leslie walked into the bathroom and closed the door as Frank gaped after him, wondering if he’d heard him right. Figuring it must be a British saying, Frank walked into his bedroom, shaking his head, and closed the door. Pulling back the covers, he dropped the towel and turned off the light before climbing into bed.

Feeling dead tired, Frank figured he’d go right to sleep, but he heard the water running and knew what Leslie was doing. Frank’s eyes closed, and in his mind he saw Leslie standing in the hallway not two feet from him, wearing nothing but a towel. The thing that had surprised Frank was how pale Leslie’s skin was, and yet in the few glances he’d seen, Frank couldn’t see a blemish on the alabaster expanse. And the way his towel had clung to Leslie’s small hips…. Frank kept his eyes clamped closed as if that would somehow make the images go away. He was not going to lust after a man he couldn’t have, or shouldn’t touch, no matter what. Frank tried to will himself to sleep, but that didn’t work, not when certain parts of his anatomy definitely had other ideas. Rolling over, Frank closed his eyes and did his best to ignore the images of Leslie and go to sleep. He had many things he needed to get done tomorrow, and he needed to be awake and on top of his game, but he was not going to be able to do that if he spent the entire night thinking about Leslie—handsome, frustrating, probably straight Leslie.

Andrew's Bio: Andrew grew up in western Michigan with a father who loved to tell stories and a mother who loved to read them. Since then he has lived throughout the country and traveled throughout the world. He has a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and works in information systems for a large corporation. Andrew's hobbies include collecting antiques, gardening, and leaving his dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink (particularly when writing)  He considers himself blessed with an accepting family, fantastic friends, and the world’s most supportive and loving partner. Andrew currently lives in beautiful, historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

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1 comment:

  1. I just finished this one this morning, Andrew, and I have to tell you, this is one of your best that I've read so far. The detail is amazing, and I loved the whole plot of the stolen art and windows.

    You brought it all to life.