Eliska Novak put out her cigarette and sat up in bed, silently placing her feet on the floor. Sliding her hand under the bed sheet, she pulled out her bra and slipped it on. The man next to her was still asleep and she was hoping for a painless exit. Eliska had worked her way up the social ladder, and though most of her clientele had some sense of decency, there was the occasional bastard who couldn't be turned down. The finer things , she thought. The finer things make it worth it. Five-star hotels, private jets, cocktails with celebrities, even dining with foreign ministers. All she had to do was be a pretty face-beautiful enough to be noticed, but plain enough to be forgotten. No one seemed to care when she disappeared from home, so why should she?
She walked across the room, picked up the black dress draped over the back of the chair and stepped into it. She pulled her long dark brown hair into a ponytail before wrapping it in a tight bun. She had twelve hours left until her flight. Plenty of time to get cleaned up, grab something to eat, do some shopping, and tie up loose ends. She was ready to disappear for a while. As she picked up her purse, a small, brown envelope fell from the table.
The man in bed rolled over. He murmured, slurring his words: "Eliza, m'dear ..."
Eliska held still until his breathing returned to normal, then checked the envelope. 10,000 US dollars, as promised. She placed it in her purse and slipped quietly out of the room.
"Scotch and soda, please."
"You've got it."
Paul Leclerc placed his rucksack on the barstool next to him and pulled out a postcard and pen. When he was sixteen years old, he made his sister Claire a promise to send her postcards from every city he visited. He was proud to have kept that promise for ten years now.
"Here you go," the bartender said. "Anything else?"
"No, that's fine. Thanks."
Paul sipped his drink of choice and thought about Claire. He was looking forward to seeing her again. He was born in Marseille and grew up there until he was old enough to start working on some of the local ships at the harbor. His pleasant disposition and brilliant memory, especially for remembering people, made him an all-around likable guy, earning him the nickname "Names and Faces." His memory also came in handy when gambling on the ships, something he'd taken advantage of on more than one occasion. He knew how often to win and lose, managing to stay under the radar while saving enough money to open his own bar back home in Marseilles. A couple of times a year he travelled to different cities around the world, looking for small distilleries with unique flavors to bring home to his bar. He was ready to get back there soon. He signed the card, finished his drink, and stood.
"How much do I owe you?" he asked, pulling several bills from his pocket.
"Six-fifty," the bartender replied.
Paul placed the money on the bar. "Is there a post office around here?"
"There's a mailbox around the corner."
"Great, thanks." Paul gave the bartender a kind smile and walked out the door.
Jian Zhang had dreamt of the painting in front of him so many times he could hardly believe he was standing in front of the real thing. But he was. And he was in awe.
"It's quite special, isn't it?" Agnieszka asked, her face beaming with delight.
Special was an understatement. He had rarely seen light depicted so gloriously. The painting seemed to swallow him completely.
"How did you manage to get ahold of it?" Jian asked, still dumbfounded. He knew his wife was a well-respected art dealer, but even he thought this acquisition was slightly out of her league.
"It's on its way to London," she said. " We are on our way to London!"
Jian kept his voice calm. "What do you mean we ?"