Counterfeit Conspiracies

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

COUNTERFEIT CONSPIRACIES

 

by

 

RITTER AMES

 

 

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ebook Edition

Copyright © 2013 by Ritter Ames

Cover design by Lyndsey Lewellen

Gemma Halliday Publishing

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to your online retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author's work

 

 

 

Author's Note:

 

The reason you're able to read this book right now is because of two timely and incredible writing contests. The first was held a couple of years ago when Elizabeth Guy still put out her wonderful monthly
The Verb
newsletter. Each issue had a contest, and with my entry into her Killer Thriller flash fiction contest, and the subsequent win, I not only gained a bit of money and a detailed critique by this wonderful reading-writer, but my story also helped cement the full character of Laurel Beacham in my mind. This allowed me to brainstorm the story arc for this series, and actually start the first book,
Counterfeit Conspiracies.

 

So, when I entered a contest Gemma Halliday offered on her website in spring 2013, hoping the first chapter of the book would win me a new Paper White, I instead gained a publishing contract, and a solid deadline for this series. I couldn't have been happier over not getting that Paper White.

 

Because this character has been rolling around in my mind for a while, without these two wonderful—and free—contests, I would have completed this book and started writing the rest of the series, but
Counterfeit Conspiracies
would have likely taken longer to complete. One problem every author I know experiences is that Life tends to take precedence over our writing time. Contests are a means of giving us deadlines for our fiction, and let us test drive ideas while we work out the kinks. And when great ones like Elizabeth Guy's and Gemma Halliday's come along, magic happens.

 

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

 

~ Ritter

To all family and friends who have been there throughout the writing journey. Thank you, everyone.

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COUNTERFEIT CONSPIRACIES

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Clouds shrouded the moon. The Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo, snoozed by the rose bushes after devouring the tasty treat I had offered. Waves crashed in the distance and gave the crisp sea air a taste and smell of salt spray. The estate's showplace lawn ended a hundred yards away at a private beach.

Like my previous visit, I wore head-to-toe black. For this jaunt, however, I hadn't donned the ebony-beaded Vera Wang halter gown and Jimmy Choo stilettos I sported the last time. No, for the current foray, my Lycra garb more closely resembled Catwoman with my blonde hair hidden under a dark hood. Night vision goggles finished off the ensemble. The difference between arriving invited versus an incognito—and illegal—entrance.

As I slipped through the mansion's side door, the left wall security pad flashed. I patted the ring of leather pouches attached to my belt and removed a cute little gizmo I'd picked up in Zurich that resembled a garage door opener. Only this handy gadget decoded electronic security systems, rendering them harmless. The tiny warning whine never had a chance to turn into a scream; my device made friends and invited us to enter.

I slipped down the rear hall and up the staircase that my research had uncovered in a back issue of
Architectural Digest
. At the upper landing, infrared lasers protected the area from unwelcome visitors. I opened another pouch, withdrew a small, specially formulated aerosol can, and sprayed in a sweeping pattern. As the particles fell, laser lines were revealed in vivid detail. Seconds later, I'd picked the lock on the turret gallery door.

The last time I stood in that room the master of the house provided a guided tour and made a blatant pass beneath the gaze of a Dutch Master. My ability to deflect the Lothario took grace and diplomacy, plus restraint to curb my strong desire to disable his favorite body part. Still, the event had been worth the effort. A six-month quest was over, and I had found my Holy Grail of paintings.

"My father started this collection," the slimy billionaire had bragged. "He made purchases while stationed in Europe in the mid-1940s. I added to the works and specially constructed this temperature-controlled castle safe-room."

On this return visit—my acquisition finale—I slid into the darkened gallery. The circular space, lit only by the minimal luminosity filtering through a half-dozen narrow arched windows, allowed my shadow to mix with those already in residence. Night vision goggles allowed the glorious set of Rembrandts and French Impressionists to glow alongside the beauty I came to liberate.

It was a vibrant seascape, circa 1821, and a breathtaking scene of energy and clear passion. A little known work by a well-respected artist, which had been cherished by the family of its previous owner before eventually falling into the hands of the billionaire's father. Gazing upon the work, I could almost hear the buoy bell ringing in the distance, but the room's current illumination left the scene too dark to see beyond the receding foamy water. I shivered as if the wind picked up; the painting was that powerful.

I heard a noise. A human-moving noise.

I had to hurry. I slipped a blade from my belt and ran it along the frame's edge.

The moment the canvas was free, I heard the master of the house bark, "What are you doing?"

I spun to find him standing behind me. Holding his gaze, I sheathed my knife and dug into another pouch, then threw a capped vial into the darkness between myself and potential capture. The glass broke, and when the chemicals inside hit the air, a dense smoke obscured all vision. But I had already calculated the distance to the nearest window, moved to it, and affixed a suction cup with a braided nylon line to the wall. The painting protected in one hand, my remaining gloved fist, fitted with brass knuckles, shattered the narrow pane. I slid through the turret's slit-window, taking a few shards of glass along for the ride. Then I rappelled down the rough stone wall to the manicured lawn.

"Zeus! Apollo! Robbery! Attack!" my impotent enemy screamed.

 

*  *  *

 

Next morning, the painting and I slipped into the back of Greg's shop for the new frame constructed per my specifications. A close facsimile to photos, and infinitely better than the garish gold number that restrained the seascape during its turret imprisonment, the burnished brass frame even evoked a nautical theme that conjured the look of a spyglass.

I changed into blue coveralls and left his shop with the newly framed painting wrapped in brown paper. Magnetic signs attached to my van implied a courier service, as did the faked breast pocket insignia on my uniform. The drive to Mrs. Lebowitz's tiny home was quick.

"Yes?" she answered the door. A Holocaust survivor, the only one in her family to make it out of Europe alive, she was a child when the Allies freed her from Auschwitz.

My brown-wrapped package once graced her grandmother's dining room. Before it was stolen by Nazis and purchased with fictionalized provenance by my adversary's father.

"Mrs. Lebowitz, I have a very special delivery."

 

*  *  *

 

Eighteen-hours and one chartered jet flight to Italy later, I was still running on adrenalin as I played the part of art world socialite representing the New York based Beacham Foundation. Easy enough, since I'd perfected the role over the last five years, except that nothing was going right tonight.

"A quick and easy pickup," Max, my boss, had told me. "Everything is taken care of. Don't worry."

It was another black-tie affair with nothing more to go on than a name and small photo that Nico had slipped me earlier with a flute of Dom Pérignon. Not a perfect method but par for the course.  

Only things had gone from bad to worse quickly. I'd received a bogus text with driving instructions that sent me in the wrong direction, my contact in the photo was nowhere to be found, and I'd noticed one of the attendees seemed a bit too interested in me. I'd dodged him once in the entry, again in the ballroom. And here
he
was again. Churning through the crowd like a heat-seeking missile. A Rhett Butler wannabe in Armani.

I'd racked my brains trying to figure which camp he fit into, but got
nada
. With so many players in the art game, it was hard to keep everyone straight, both above and below ground. But a new American would have stayed in my memory, especially a tall male one with a deep Southern accent. Was it simple egoism, or did he work for someone plotting against me? My money lay on the latter. Especially after the diverting text.

He blocked my way. "How 'bout we take a late night stroll outside? A lil birdie tol' me the air on this Italian bay is soft as warm satin slidin' over your skin."

Disregarding my first impulse, which would have left him with a broken nose, I kept my breathing and temper at even levels. I needed to find out what his game really was—but not now.

"Why don't you ask that lil ol' birdie to join you?" Did the bogus text come from Mr. Wonderful, here? The man who had paid me too much attention this evening? My palms were damp as I ran them down my black sheath, ostensibly to smooth the material around my hips. It wasn't the best move in the world, but I couldn't risk his grabbing a hand and getting the truth 'handed' to him. I sidestepped.

"I'm afraid that lil birdie has moved on to bigger and better things." One of his strides halved the distance between us. "You know, honey, while gentlemanly manners forbid I refer to a lady by anything other than beautiful, I must say you're looking very pale at this moment, even for a
natural
blond, Miss . . ."

Miss None of Your Business!
But I wasn't fooled. I saw the intelligence behind those teal eyes. He knew I was Laurel Beacham. Hell, he probably knew my middle name was Iris and I'd streaked through the Cornell library freshman year. I didn't know how he knew—just that he did. I also knew anger had replaced any paleness on my face with a bright blush.

"I'm sorry, I don't feel well," I lied, turning before he could stop me. I strode quickly down a hall, relieved when a discreet lavatory door offered refuge.

I took a couple of deep breaths, regaining my composure. Though, as I looked around the lavatory, that composure quickly died.

A mosaic-tile wall separated the toilet from the lavish dressing salon. A pair of wingtips peeked from behind the wall at an awkward angle. I hurried around the wall and stopped short.

There was no mistaking him. Propped on the john was the man from the photo who I was supposed to meet. Half of his handlebar moustache was jaggedly slashed and discarded on the floor, while blood from a gash at his throat spilled down his round belly and onto the cushioned turquoise seat.

Even as nausea hit, my mind ticked over the possibilities. From the look of things, he had been dead only a few minutes. No blood trail, so he'd been killed where he sat.

I frisked him, careful not to touch skin as I explored bulges that could be the seventeenth-century snuffbox I'd been sent to recover, but the search proved fruitless. Something wasn't right. The snuffbox, though a valuable art object, didn't warrant taking the man's life.

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