“Well, get back out there, man,” Breem commanded.
Nicolas’s boss, Walter Breem, was still in London, and Nicolas hated it when the old man was in a yelling mood, which was occurring often lately. And he hated England. Nice one day, crappy the next. Even sunny one moment, rainy the next, he thought. He wanted to be back in Northern California where the weather was always perfect, at least to him. And he wanted Elisabeth to himself.
“Billy will die for this,” he said quietly as he ended the call with Breem and tossed the phone on the bed. His thoughts about Billy bounced about in his mind, whereas his verbal proclamation bounced off the four drab walls of the stereotypical hotel room. He reflected on the many years they had worked together: he, always in the lead; Billy, always willing to do whatever, no matter how dirty the work. But as the two aged and their work stayed much the same, Billy grew braver, a bit defiant at times. This most recent act was the last straw.
Nicolas and Billy went from London to Manchester by train after getting word from their new English contacts that Elisabeth had left London on a train headed north. Not knowing why she had suddenly traipsed off to Manchester, they received word of the woman’s further movements two days later. Elisabeth had headed farther north, and the two men had moved to a chain hotel near Kendal, just on the southern reaches of the country’s Lake District. Without much to do but continue their waiting game, the two men had gone out drinking the evening before. Though Nicolas could not remember how much he had drunk or how he had made it back to his room that night, he learned from Breem’s phone call that Elisabeth was in a little village farther north—and that Billy was already in pursuit of her. The notion of going farther north into the waterlogged countryside only added to Nicolas’s torment.
The fact that Billy was trying to nab Elisabeth without him, even at their boss’s command, had worn the last bit of tolerance Nicolas had for his longtime junior partner. Sure, he had been seriously hungover, completely out of it and asleep when Breem had called from London to relay to them where Elisabeth was heading. But Billy should have done whatever it took to wake him. Billy knew Nicolas wanted Elisabeth for himself, once the boss was done with her. When the right moment came about, it would be Billy’s end, too, Nicolas thought as he walked through the lobby and outside into the warmth of a sunny day. The sun pissed him off even more, he felt, because he knew it would be raining soon, certainly by the next day. “Nice one day, crappy the next. Always crappy the next day,” Nicolas commented to the breeze.
Squinting from the bright light and feeling a persistent buzzing in his head, Nicolas dug into his jacket pocket for a set of dark glasses. Through an all-too-familiar haze of the morning’s hangover, he looked around for a vehicle. Breem had told him to “get back out there,” but to where exactly, and how? he wondered. Billy had taken the piece-of-junk car they had on loan from Breem’s new friends—people whom Nicolas had introduced to Breem, with no thanks—and had driven off to some other little burg in the soggy countryside without him. He was not sure what Billy was up to with his fresh enthusiasms. He had always deferred to Nicolas in the past. “Was he suddenly growing a pair?” the man asked to the clear blue sky.
Dropping that useless line of thinking, Nicolas refocused his attention on Elisabeth. He had found the Austrian woman to be very alluring in her youth on the Meekses’ estate, and he knew she had lost little of her beauty over the many years since they had first met. He knew he was no handsome devil himself and that he had come from the least-favored neighborhoods of the East Bay, but he had some money tucked away and believed he could provide well for her. She would just take some… convincing. She would have to come around to him one day, he thought.
When they had met years earlier in the Napa Valley, Nicolas knew he had approached her too roughly. But he could change her mind about him if she only gave him a chance. He could even get her away from Breem, if she wanted him to do so. He knew that idea was ridiculous, but he might be able to pull it off. For whatever reason, he had always been attracted to the European woman and was especially fond of her looks and her adorable accent. She was different from most of the women he met in his life. Although he would accept their advances, oddly enough, he never much liked the type of woman who liked the type of man he was, nor did he like the type of woman whose services he inevitably had to purchase. His boss and his cronies had appetites for young women, even girls, and they bought those affections often enough. But Nicolas could neither justify the cost nor defend that deplorable pastime to his priest.
Raised by a devout Catholic mother; beaten by a bullying, overbearing father; and brought to the Lord’s word by Father Mulcahy, Nicolas felt only disgust when Breem went to parties where young girls were brought in for the pleasures of the old man and his friends. Elisabeth was a woman, a beautiful woman, and Nicolas had always wanted to have her for his own. He knew he needed to change his behavior around such a genuine woman as Elisabeth, but he had no example in his world to follow, at least to that end. Someday, maybe soon, he would get his chance, Nicolas considered as he conceded the inconvenient truth: there was no car for him to use, nor was there a taxi in sight.
Extracting the cheap flip phone from his pants pocket, Nicolas called Billy’s temporary cell number. On the first ring, the man on the other end answered with an enthusiastic voice that sickened Nicolas to his core.
“Where the hell are you? Breem said you went for Elisabeth.” Nicolas managed to get the words out as he wandered about the hotel parking lot with no particular destination in mind.
Billy told him a story of how he drove the streets of the little village of Staveley and just happened upon the Austrian woman sitting peacefully in a garden beside the place where she was staying, an old B and B.
Billy’s rush of excitement surprised Nicolas and angered him even further. His partner continued on at a frenetic pace. Billy saw the woman and then parked the car just out of sight. Walking back for her, he scoped out the garden entrance where she was sitting. Elisabeth was not aware of his presence until Billy grabbed her from behind and covered her mouth in the act. Billy went on excitedly recalling how Nicolas had once used the very same moves on a former associate of Breem’s who had to be dispensed with following a deal that had gone sour.
Nicolas could see that particular event in his mind, recalling all the details, including Breem’s bonus for him and Billy after they had managed that job so effectively. Their boss had paid for hookers and booze for a bawdy weekend at a mountain cabin near Lake Tahoe. But this time, it was different. Nicolas still could not believe that Billy had actually accomplished the morning’s grab on his own or that Billy had even gone after the woman without his partner in the first place.
Billy started to slow the spewing of his story, his telling nearly complete. Nicolas, finally able to get in a word, said into his phone, “All right, asshole, I’ll wait here at the hotel then. I guess I don’t have any other choice, do I? Get her here as soon as you can, but watch out for the cops. The car you are driving was stolen for our use. We don’t need you getting hauled in for that, do we? It would be real hard for you to explain the woman,” Nicolas said, and then he paused for a moment. “Yeah, you do that, asshole.”
Nicolas, somewhat satisfied with the retort he had verbally delivered to his pale partner, felt a bit of relief from his previously held anger.
* * *
Billy, spooked by his partner’s warnings, slowed the vehicle and pulled over to consider his best route back to the Days Inn beside the lake south of Kendal, all the while avoiding unwanted attention from the local police force. And he was in no hurry to see his angry partner back at the hotel before he had a chance to cool off. Hopefully, Breem would show up soon, he thought.
* * *
Breem and his longtime henchmen had travelled to England to find the Austrian woman from the Meekses’ estate so that he could get what he needed from her. The hasty plan of flying to England came after his “consultant,” as Breem liked to call a former police detective now on his payroll, had discovered that Elisabeth had flown off to London.
However, Breem did not have much of a plan beyond that. His first order of business was to make contact with people who would do the kind of quiet work he needed. His vast network of dubious types did not reach across the Atlantic, but he knew people who knew people. With a couple of quick phone calls, Breem had the right people on the hunt for the woman they sought. Nicolas had put him in touch with a drug dealer in Oakland who had a cousin in London. With a call to London, Breem now had a network at his disposal that could provide him with the services he required. Once they found Elisabeth, Breem would send Nicolas and Billy out after her. Breem seldom dirtied his hands with this kind of work. But when they had Elisabeth, he would break her down to a point where he would get what he needed, information that would help him to seize Huntington Meeks’s very valuable collection. Breem knew that Nicolas had a thing for the Austrian woman, and he imagined that this interest would be enough to get her to tell them whatever they needed. If not, Breem had other means of encouraging Elisabeth to cooperate.
From the moment he learned of the unique collection that Huntington’s grandfather had put together, he developed a complete and abiding obsession for possessing it. Its value certainly fascinated him the most, but owning something no one else in the world had was just enough to drive his desires.
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