On the last Monday in January, Sebastian Gilliard stood across from me with an air of pretentiousness written all over him. He sat with his back erect, and he had a large leather and metal briefcase in his hand. His five-thousand-dollar suit and one-hundred-dollar haircut screamed money and power, not to mention the mojo he tossed around my office. He was built like a reed, tall and willowy, but carried an underlying strength that seemed almost predatory. Dark brown eyes bore down on me with measured scrutiny and the wisdom of decades. A shiver ran down my spine. I wasn’t entirely off-put, but his aura wasn’t quite right. There appeared to be something a bit strange about it, maybe the silvery color or the intensity of it.
“Please have a seat Mr. Gilliard.”
I gestured to the empty seat in front of my desk.
I had a talent—or curse depending on how you looked at it—for seeing people’s auras. The intensity of a person’s aura related directly to their life force energy levels. For example, the better health a person maintained, the more intensely their aura stood out. To me, it appeared as a faint outline of light that peeked just above the surface of a person’s skin. Gilliard’s silver glow burned more intensely than an average, healthy adult male. I found it curious, but it hadn’t been the first time I’d encountered people with bright auras like his. I had always assumed that it meant they were somehow stronger in spirit than others were or extremely healthier than the average person. However, whenever I encountered someone who had an aura which burned as intensely as his, it was very rare.
“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice Ms. Blaque,” he said.
We sat in my private office located in the back of the gallery. The walls were painted pale lavender and the aroma of jasmine wafted through the Spartan room from an aromatherapy candle on the credenza behind me. According to my New Age, personal assistant and part-time gallery manager—Andrea—it supposedly had a calming effect. I hadn’t been entirely sold. A single painting by a Louisiana artist depicting the Battle of Orleans hung on the wall to my left. It reminded me of the life I’d left in New Orleans over a decade ago. Besides the painting and my diplomas, the walls of my office were bare.
I’d moved to Chicago and opened the Blaque Gallery shortly after graduating from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in art history and a bachelor’s in archaeology, using money I’d inherited from my late parents. It had been kept in a trust until I reached the age of twenty-five, and my godfather, Professor Arthur J. Middleton was the trustee of my father’s estate. They died the year I turned eighteen, and I ended up here in Chicago, with very little money and hardly any job experience. I worked odd jobs here and there to make ends meet and eventually wound up living with Uncle Arthur, who hired me part-time at the museum where he worked as the lead curator.
I sometimes worked as an agent for the Art Loss Register, where I mostly helped art dealers, larger galleries, auction houses and private collectors to recover their stolen artwork and reach out-of-court settlements with those who might unwittingly possess their stolen property. From time to time I’ve gone undercover as an art buyer, helped the descendants of Holocaust victims recover their possessions and helped to break up art theft rings.
Over the previous few years I’d participated in sting operations and assisted the federal authorities in busting organized art theft rings around the country. The truth is that stolen artwork can take years—decades even—to resurface when working within the confines of the law. To stand up in court, every, ‘T’ must be crossed and every, ‘I’ dotted.
Sometimes, people are willing to pay someone experienced in art recovery to ‘reclaim’ their property by any means necessary. That’s where I come in. I used my Registry connections to get information on the down low and went in on my own to take back artwork on behalf of my clients. This was perfectly legal with the exception of sometimes having to break and enter, in order to reclaim the stolen property without alerting those who stole it.
However, it seemed that a good chunk of my time has been spent operating the gallery, instead of recovery work. This meeting with Gilliard would be the first inquiry into a possible recovery job I’d had in months.
“So exactly what can I do for you, Mr. Gilliard?”
“I appreciate your time and your candor, Ms. Blaque. I represent a private collector who’s had items stolen from one of his local properties and wants them returned.”
“Please call me Ivory.” I smiled. “Have you notified the authorities?”
His facial expression remained placid.
“Thank you, Ivory. No, time is of the essence. I need to recover these items immediately or my employer stands to lose millions,” Gilliard said.
“Have the items been added to the Art Loss Register?”
“My employer wishes that their identity remain confidential and that this matter be handled as discreetly as possible, which is why I’ve been sent to obtain your services. As far as our resources can confirm, you are the best at what you do and come highly recommended. Rest assured you will be handsomely rewarded for your work.”
“Of course,” I said. I wasn’t entirely sure that Gilliard’s claims were legitimate—something I could always research later. Besides, my Spidey-sense wasn’t going completely ape-shit and my curiosity had been piqued enough to at least hear him out.
“What exactly are the stolen items your employer needs to be recovered, and who is suspected of having stolen them?”
He opened his briefcase, took out a file folder and placed it in front of me.
“As to whom we suspect has stolen them that information will be provided to you only after you have accepted the job. However, you were selected for this job due to your proclivity for dealing with difficult situations and uncanny phenomena. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t take note in the fact that you’ve accomplished so much for someone so young,” he said, as he waved a hand towards the wall where my diplomas hung.
I looked at Gilliard cautiously. He’d obviously done his homework. The fact that I was knocking on thirty’s door, sometimes made me feel far from youthful. Although given what I’d experienced in my decade here in Chi-Town, I felt a lot older than my twenty-nine years at times.
“I appreciate your employer’s confidence in my skills. But, what sort of difficult situations and uncanny phenomena are you expecting? In my line of my work, I’m sometimes paid to obtain various items from those who aren’t too willing to part with them, on behalf of people who aren’t willing to accept “no” for an answer. Everything from a tiny canister of toxin which makes the Ebola virus look like a mild case of indigestion, to fine art containing secret codes, odd artifacts with uncanny attributes, or a nesting set of bejeweled dildos. My eyes were quickly opened to the existence of the supernatural as over the years I’ve encountered things that would keep the general public awake at night if they knew of their existence,” I said.
“Those we believe to have stolen the items in question, sometimes employ preternaturals. Since the existence of such creatures isn’t publicly acknowledged, we needed someone who wouldn’t laugh in our face or go in blind and end up among the missing because of it. Neither scenario would serve us in the recovery of the property,” Gilliard said.
I nodded in agreement, opened the file and spread its contents across my desk. There were several old black and white 8×10 photographs of two revolvers. They appeared to be 1865 Colt Army revolvers, like ones I’d seen at antique gun auctions my father took me to as a child. These particular pistols were absolutely magnificent. A document describing the pistols and at least half a dozen newspaper articles were also contained in the file. They were valued at over eighteen million dollars and had once belonged to the Schwend collection—a collection of rare pistols from the 1800’s—before they came into the possession of Gilliard’s employer. I remembered seeing an exhibition of the Schwend collection years ago with my father.
I noticed that the owner’s name had been blacked out on the certificate. What exactly does Gilliard’s boss have to hide, I wondered? Sometimes some of the people who look to hire me aren’t very scrupulous and may in fact be criminals themselves. It’s very important that I know who I’m working for and why, because I have to protect myself from being caught holding the trick bag. Even though I work on behalf of the rightful owners of the artwork and artifacts I recover, my methods aren’t always lawful to say the least. The one saving grace is that the people who have taken the artwork aren’t apt to call the police to report their stolen items. This meant I’d have to run an even more thorough background check than usual on Gilliard and charge twice my normal fee.
He stared me in the eyes while he reached into his briefcase and produced a large, thick manila envelope and tossed it onto my desk.
“I think perhaps this will help to ensure my employer receives the anonymity that they desire. That’s fifty thousand dollars to get you started. I’m authorized to pay you another one hundred and fifty thousand dollars upon your successful recovery of the items. If you complete the job earlier than the deadline, you will be paid another fifty thousand.”
I tried to refrain from allowing my eyes to pop out of their sockets as I stared at the envelope. Whoever Gilliard’s mystery employer was, he had deep pockets and didn’t want his identity known in a really bad way.
He pulled a white business card from his inside breast pocket, and handed it to me. “My employer requires an answer by 6 p.m. this evening. You may reach me at this phone number to either accept or decline the job,” he said.
I took the card, which had only his name and a phone number printed on it. As he handed it to me I noticed an odd mark on his neck which was shaped like a bird’s wing. It didn’t appear to be a tattoo as far as I could tell, perhaps a birthmark. I placed the card on top of the photographs and sat back in my chair. I glanced at the wall clock, it read almost 10 a.m.
“Tell your boss that I’ll think it over and call you to let you know what I decide. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another appointment scheduled in a few minutes,” I lied.
“Fine,” he said.
I picked up the envelope of money and handed it back to Gilliard, but he held up his hand in refusal.
“Keep it. Think of it as an application fee should you decline. However, my employer is quite confident that you’ll make the right call. Although I do trust that you will treat this matter with the utmost discretion regardless of whatever your decision may be,” he said, closing his briefcase and standing.
“Of course.” I smiled and stood, reaching across the desk to shake his hand. He took mine in his and engulfed it. A strange tingly sensation ran through me for the briefest of seconds.
“Good day, Ms. Blaque,” Gilliard said, before leaving my office.
I closed the door behind him and leaned against it. I took a deep breath and went back to my desk and sat down. I counted the cash at least three times and each time it added up to exactly fifty thousand dollars. I pulled the Battle of Orleans painting away from the wall, opened the safe behind it and placed the envelope full of cash into it.
I pulled up the security camera footage on my PC from when he entered the gallery to when he left. He had been extremely careful to avoid the cameras in plain sight but failed to avoid the hidden ones. I had a decent head shot of him captured on my monitor. I saved the still image, attached it to an encrypted e-mail, and then sent it to my associate named Flip with a message asking him to run a background check on Gilliard. I stressed the importance of needing it before six that evening.
Flip called back two minutes later. He said to meet him at Babineaux’ Cajun and Creole Kitchen at 1pm.
I stared at the image on my screen. Who exactly are you, and what is it you have to hide? My desk phone buzzed.
“Ms. Blaque, Mr. Gault is here.” The voice belonged to Andrea.
“Okay, thank you Andrea, please send him in.” I placed the photos, document and news clippings into the folder and shoved them into my oversized purse in the bottom drawer of my desk before Gault entered my office.
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