I’m a huge fan of the Bodies of Art series by Ritter Ames so you can imagine how thrilled I was that she asked me if I would be interested in sharing a first look at the forthcoming next installment, Fatal Forgeries! I have the honor of sharing the cover with you all, as well as the first scene of the book; which, by the by, is now available for pre-order! Enjoy!
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The mid-January air was cold enough that I saw my breath, but I was too focused on my task to feel chilled. My uniform was a Lycra catsuit. A black hood covered my blonde hair. A coat would have created an extra obstacle I couldn’t afford. Minutes ticked down, faster and faster. No time for anything that didn’t contribute to the job at hand.
The narrow cable lay coiled beside the rooftop A/C unit. A quarter moon hung bravely in the night sky, casting little light for me to see—or be seen from my perch so high above the ground. I felt more invisible than I truly was. Excessive self-confidence was always the greatest danger in this kind of game. Still, I took advantage and leaned over the five-hundred-year-old golden-stone balustrade, stealing a second to re-gauge the distance between me and the darkened edge of the forest several hundred feet away. In the semi-darkness, I couldn’t distinguish individual trees. I pulled the night-vision goggles down to hide my blue eyes and double checked on the due diligence I’d accomplished with subterfuge the week before. All to make my mental map see the targeted objective. I only had one shot. No time for mistakes.
My right hand freed the collapsed crossbow from the holster on my thigh. My left dragged the arrow from a long pocket I’d fashioned into the Lycra on the corresponding leg. Connecting the cable to the arrow was easy. The hard part came in trusting that every other piece of this last phase would go as planned.
I pulled at the sides of the crossbow, opening it to full size. Although I’d oiled the mechanism to keep it quiet, a rogue snick sounded when the parts snapped into sequence. A pause to see if the unexpected sound caught the attention of security personnel. Nothing. I closed my eyes for a moment, realized I’d been holding my breath, and forced the air slowly from my lungs.
One more risk. I removed a glove to run sensitive fingertips along the cool top of the balustrade, at the point where I’d carefully worked indentations into the stone. I located the first indentation, then the second barely there scrape. Easily confused with earlier battles the fortifications withstood since its medieval architects pulled artistic ideals together with security specifications. At least I hoped so. Too late to worry.
In a heartbeat, I’d lined up the crossbow, placing the mechanism atop the stone and triple-checking my marks with the base of the device. I squinted at the tree line, then spent another minute unfurling the cord from its coil so it fell haphazardly across the paved roof. Working almost on instinct at this point, one end went into a metal loop cemented into the wall that I’d discovered earlier. The loop had been the final detail to seal my decision on where to run this phase of the operation.
The moon broke fleetingly through the gathered clouds, but it was dim and small and basically useless for any needed illumination. Exactly as I needed.
I risked the seconds to put my right glove back on—before I closed my eyes to pray, to wish, or to will everything and everyone to perform correctly in the next few minutes. Then I pulled the trigger and let the arrow fly.
A distant gratifying thunk told me my calculations for weight and distance remained spot on. I gave the cord a tug, satisfied the arrow point was wedged deeply enough into the tree’s trunk. Both ends now secure, I attached a silver carabiner to the loop of the black cylinder and then the metal clip to the cord. I let the “package” sail down the line and kept hold near the loop to feel the vibration en route.
Now came the waiting. My focus stayed intent on the objective. Suddenly, the vibration in the line stopped. I felt the cord move again, up and down this time. A sharp tug on the line told me Nico had it at the other end. I felt the line jerk hard and go slack. My turn again. I grasped the line with both gloves. Hand over hand, I pulled back the once-used cord. It still had yards to go and escapes to make before it slept.
My black leather gloves never lost their grip on the steel line. Less than a minute and I heard the arrow slap against the side of the stone far below, as it began its ascent back to the roof. I didn’t slow down. The sharp fiberglass arrow rode easily up this windowless side of the chateau. It was all a matter of timing at this stage. Things were going almost too perfectly. Unless I heard a shout of alarm, I was past the first round of danger. The next security patrol wasn’t due for another three minutes. I rubbed at the top of the stone to smudge any fingerprints I may have left behind.
My objective—what flew down the line in the large black tube—was the Caravaggio masterwork the facility’s director had not meant for us to see. When Jack and I visited days ago, a panel that should have been closed wasn’t. The director was waylaid by an assistant and let us enter his office on our own. A glimpse of the visible drapery in the painting, though I could only see an inch width, lured me like a siren’s call. Jack was busy looking at the bookshelf and neighboring awards, but he turned when I gasped and pushed the panel open farther. The sharp light and dark contrasting technique was Caravaggio’s bold statement and trademark, known by the Italian term “chiaroscuro.” And the incomparable realism of key images like that drapery told me this was a find. Five men in the work, and the expected illuminated cameo of the artist. A knife covered in blood shone like Chinese lacquer. Typical Caravaggio genius.
Then the director came in and uttered a soft oath.
He’d quickly moved around the desk to close the panel. “Only a copy,” he’d said, his French accent heavy in his anxiety. “Made from a new secret digital technology using oils.” Even without reading his body language I knew he was lying.
This painting had been on the Beacham Foundation’s “lookout” list for years. I needed no research to tell me who was the true owner of the painting. In that instant, I made plans to reclaim it.
Startling news about how the painting would be picked up in a few hours had moved things up. I stepped up my plans and recruited Nico for assistance.
Then, as the reclamation was in play, while I scouted the painting’s security parameters in the darkened director’s office, looking for the best way to safely remove the masterpiece, I noticed a figurine in a locked case. Another stolen work on our list. It was small and I operated on impulse, letting it ride piggyback in the cylinder with the painting.
A chorus of barks from the direction of the kennels reminded me how everything must work perfectly from this point outward. If the guard made his last solo round too late or too soon, I’d be discovered. However, if anyone noticed the empty frame in the director’s study or the lonely case without the tiny figurine, it wouldn’t much matter that I no longer had the items on me. Laurel Beacham in the inky black catsuit would get hauled off by the local gendarmes.
I had one chance to get down and get away. One chance after the guard made his rounds and before the dogs were turned out to roam the estate as residents and staff slept. One chance.
We’d taken every possible precaution. Some pre-work was already completed, so we weren’t flying blind: we had preliminary blueprints and schedules. Nothing giving us complete details, but enough to provide a framework.
Charcoal darkened my face, and I’d pulled up my collar and bottom part of the hood to cover my mouth and most of my nose. I hid by the stone wall and risked a peek around and down, watching for the guard’s approach. The wind picked up, and I shivered. A strand of blonde hair was teased free from cover. I poked it back in, then shifted the elasticized black hood for better coverage. I pushed my left sleeve away from my glove to sneak a glance at my watch and swallowed hard. As I waited, I disconnected the cord from the loop and ran the loose end through the ring instead, so the line was doubled with the metal loop as its apex. I slapped the arrow back into the ready position on the crossbow, then slipped the strap over my head and one arm to lay in cross-body fashion. Everything was now hands-free, but the weapon stayed open on my back and ready to shoot if needed. I didn’t want to have to use the device in defensive mode, but I was ready all the same.
In the next instant, I saw a flash of light cut the darkness and round the corner of the chateau near ground level. Just in time.
The guard swept his beam in a relaxed manner. Most of his shift was over, and his gait told me he was probably a shade self-satisfied by this point. I was counting on that complacency.
I switched sides as he passed below, and I braced against the other side of the stone impediment to barely keep him in sight. The task required me to lean out slightly to see him disappear around the next corner. As he vanished, I leapt into the next task.
Grabbing the doubled lines together in my right gloved grip, I used my other hand to drop the bulk of the line over the side. The loop got another preparatory tug to check it still held fast in the ancient mortar, and I prayed its load limit met the average weight of a healthy five-foot-nine female without popping free of the mortar.
“Final curtain, folks,” I muttered, jumping up to lever myself on the stone block that offered an opening at the crenelated end of the balustrade.
With my first leap, I began my descent, rappelling down the side of the building. I’d dropped about a story when I heard two hoots of an owl. It was our warning signal. I looked toward the direction the guard had disappeared and saw the beam of light bobbing back, quicker than when he’d passed. He was returning for some reason. Why?
I grasped the cord above and below me to hang in midair, then used the doubled line and the wall to maintain height as I walked sideways, meeting the oversized chimney several feet away. My black Lycra could bleed into shadows, but no way could I hide openly against golden-brown stone. Cowering in the crook next to the four-story stack was my only option, and I pressed in close to the architectural crevasse. I pulled the cord along with me, running most of it down the shadowed corner. I tried to make myself as small as possible while dangling next to a medieval stone chimney several stories above the ground. If he looked up and shined the light he couldn’t help but see me. At least the steel line no longer ran down the middle of the blank wall.
For the second time in almost as many minutes, I held my breath, trying not to panic. When he passed the chimney, I didn’t risk exhaling and making any noise, but his steps slowed. Time was getting close for the dogs to take up patrol. I chewed my lip, worrying over the fleeting minutes.
A gunshot sounded back the other way, and the guard reversed direction. He vanished again around the other side of the facility’s mansion house.
I resumed rappelling down the wall. As my feet hit the grass I heard running. Nico slid to a stop beside me and jerked one line from my hand. Working as my team’s digital wizard was his forte, but his skills extended equally well into the field. His black stocking cap couldn’t completely tame his dark curls, but otherwise, he was dressed for the business at hand. As he pulled the line to get it running free from the loop, I stood behind him and used my left arm and shoulder to coil it again.
“What was that?” I whispered. “A gunshot?”
The line end dropped wiggling from the heavens and Nico caught it as he answered, “Insurance I prearranged. Just sound on a remote timer. Come on.”
I dragged the cord as we raced across the open lawn. We dove into the tree line. Nico grabbed the coiled line from me and heaved it into the underbrush. “No fingerprints,” he said. “No worries.”
But I scooped up the heavy line and reset it onto my shoulder. “DNA. Always worry.”
He shrugged, holding the black tube under his left arm and bracing one end with his hand.
The crossbow slapped my back as I kept a steady pace behind him. We’d come to the chateau from separate directions. If they found my earlier scent and followed, it would just lead to the train station. I’d walked in shadows the entire two miles. Nico came with an escape vehicle and that was where we headed.
“Be careful.” I pulled the two-way comm from my ear, since I didn’t need to hear him in stereo. The devices helped inside, when I needed details from him or to relay when I had the pieces ready to go. Now comms were superfluous and added a risk of being tracked by their radio frequency.
Nico nodded and removed a twin tiny device from his ear. He raised his chin, motioning toward the end of the tube. “This is bigger than I’d thought. Is the figurine here too?”
“Yes. I wrapped it in packing and placed it at the top. I fitted a piece of cardboard so neither touches the other in the cylinder.”
Nico held up a hand to signal a stop. “Rest a minute. You need to put these on.” He pulled a pair of folded rubber boots out of the backpack he carried. “We’re going into water.”
I plopped down onto a fallen tree. “How far are we wading?” The black footwear came almost to my knees.
“About a mile.” He put the tube into the space the boots had taken in the backpack.
“It’s cold though,” he said. “The water, I mean.”
“End of January in France—what are the odds?” I grinned.
I stood and shifted the crossbow into a more comfortable position. It would have been easier to refold the weapon and reattach the bulky thing to my thigh in a streamlined state, but the risk/reward ratio favored this version.
We set off again, a bit faster, but side by side so we could talk. Nico asked, “Any snags?”
I thought back to the director’s office. The false wall I’d accidentally noticed in my routine visit last week. The serendipitous way I’d been led to these two finds. “I almost tripped the alarm on the figurine case. Missed a second wireless setup at first. The painting was a cinch once I cut it away from the frame. Would have preferred not to. Always better to keep a work whole and on the stretcher, but like so many nowadays they’d safeguarded this one with sensitivity alarms set into the frame. If I’d removed it from the wall to take away the canvas intact, all of security would have been on me in an instant.”
“How are you going to get the items back to the original owners?”
“Let Max do the honors,” I said. Recovering stolen objects was hard enough in my “reclamation projects,” but returning them myself without making people wonder made it doubly difficult to stay under the radar. This wasn’t a sanctioned Beacham Foundation job, but the painting was known as stolen, which made the idea viable. My boss would dearly love being in the spotlight for restoring lost treasures to grateful owners. “I’ll tell him the items were turned over to me anonymously, asking the foundation to make sure the rightful parties received them. Max’ll eat it up like clotted cream.”
“Some people in the chateau are going to be frustrato,” Nico said, brushing leaves from his pant legs. “They can’t claim a loss and can’t claim the items again when Max brings them back into the public realm.”
“If he actually does. I’m going to suggest the handovers be quiet affairs, to better safeguard the artworks’ return.” I stood and reset the goggles on my face. I thought I heard something the way we’d come.
“How far is the creek?”
We kept walking.
In the distance, a dog barked. Then another.
We shifted to a jog, then a run.
The Bodies of Art Series
About the Author
Ritter Ames is the USA Today Bestselling author of the Organized Mysteries series and the Bodies of Art Mysteries series. When she’s not writing or brainstorming new mysteries Ritter is usually trying to get her favorite yellow lab to stay out of the pond, or keep her grouchy black cat from trying to give the dog away on Freecycle. Ritter would love to live on a boat and write from far-flung locations around the globe, but the dog would constantly have to be fished from the water, and her husband and cat would just complain endlessly about the dog’s smell, so staying on land seems to be the only good option to keep her sanity and not get sidetracked from writing.
Ritter tries to blog regularly on her website and subscribe there to get the latest news about upcoming releases and inside scoops on her characters and series. She uses her Pinterest boards to capture great places and ideas she wants to use in both series. Go to her website to subscribe to her newsletter and get the first alert about new books in her series.
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