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Rated: 18+ · Chapter · Mystery · #2189790
A little help

"WHAT?" Michael furrowed his dark brows and glared. "Would you repeat that please? I must have misunderstood."

         "You heard me. Did you steal one of my files when you were here yesterday?"

         Michael shook his head and looked legitimately confused. "What would I do with one of your damn files? Eat it?"

         The element of surprise only worked if the person was guilty, and unless Michael was one hell of an actor, he appeared to be innocent. "I thought you might have taken it as a lesson of some kind, to show me how lax my security is here or maybe just to try and drive me nuts."

         There was another possibility, of course. Michael might be in cahoots with whoever was behind the insurance scam, paid to keep track of her--or worse. If that was the case, she could be in big trouble. But she had to know.

         "Drive you nuts? That's what you're doing to me," Michael turned to face away, hand up in frustration. "Of all the ridiculous notions I've ever heard." He put the lock he'd been working on down on the floor near the bathroom and turned back to her.

         "This file must be pretty damn important for you to make such an insane allegation. What's on it?"

         "Never mind. It was just a thought." If he wasn't guilty, it meant her choices had dwindled to one. Whoever left the spider also took the file.

         Rebecca flopped down at her desk and pushed the button to turn on her computer.

          "Oh, no you don't. You're not getting away with that this time." Michael grabbed her chair and swiveled her around. He placed his hands on the desk behind her his face and chest mere inches from hers. "Forget the slight on my character. We'll deal with that later. Right now I want to know what you're not telling me."

         "A lot of things," she replied, eyes locked with his heated gaze. The muscles of his stubbled chin and firm jaw were clenched in anger, and his hazel eyes held a glint of danger. "Back off and I might tell you."

         Michael straightened and took a step back. "Start with this missing file."

         How much can I trust my instincts? I need someone to talk to, and after all, he is a cop. "It involves; another case. The file proves that someone embezzled fifty thousand dollars from an insurance company. I was hired to track that someone down."

         "And have you?"

         Rebecca shook her head. "No, and unless this person did it more than once I might never be able to. The money was transferred directly from the insurance company's account to an individual bank account. A week later that account was closed and the money transferred to an offshore account in the Caymans." She eyed him suspiciously. "You don't happen to have an account in the Cayman Islands, do you?"

         "I wouldn't tell you if I did!" Michael rubbed his jaw. "Fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money, Rebecca. People kill for a lot less. What else are you holding back? Any other cases where someone might be out to kill you to stop an investigation? Someone who wouldn't mind taking me out for good measure?"

         Just when I was starting to feel better, he has to throw that at me. "No."

         "You sure about that?" Michael now had the ammunition to hide whatever he wanted, while forcing her to blab everything.


         "Like you were positive I took your file, right?"

         "I didn't say I was positive!" Rebecca squirmed. "But somebody took it, and you were one of the only two possibilities, the other being the person who hung the spider. Since I don't know who that is, I had to confront you."

         "I would like to point out," Michael said through clenched teeth, "that anybody could have gotten into this apartment and taken your file. The spider hanger and I are the only ones you know about. That's all."

         Rebecca frowned. "Oh. I guess--"

         "That's just it!" he interrupted. "You guess entirely too damn much! Maybe that's worked for you in the past, but this time it just isn't getting the job done."

         "Are you calling me incompetent?"

         "No, I'm calling you impetuous," Michael returned. "If you don't like it, that's too bad. The next time you accuse me of anything, you'd better have your facts straight."

         She shrugged. "So I was wrong. Sue me."

         "Don't tempt me!"

         Rebecca was well aware she could be impetuous and she wasn't about to apologize for it, either. It did work to her advantage sometimes. Right now, for instance, it had Michael tied in a frustrating knot. She smiled but didn't let him see it.

         Maybe she could annoy him even more, and see what else she could discover about his character. "Some things are better done impetuously, Michael."

         He was still glaring at her, his legs spread in a firm stance. Even in his old jeans, he looked good; she stole a glance at how they hugged his hips in a firm fit.

         "Quit that," he ordered.

         Rebecca batted her eyelashes. He didn't turn red this time but did move away from her. "Quit what?"

         "You're running your eyes up and down me like you're stripping my clothes off."

         "In your dreams." Rebecca grinned and swiveled her chair around to face her computer. "I don't know you well enough to even consider it." Liar. But it is just a little lie. I do intend to get to know him better.

         Michael let out an audible sigh and went back to work. From across the room, he said, "Make me a list of your clients, and the old serious claims you've worked on."

         "Yes, sir!"

         Rebecca tried to go back to work, too, but the sounds of Michael working with the drill and hole saw was too disruptive. Actually, she didn't know what made her more nervous, having Michael so close or her thoughts about the case, and, the spider. The two were so intermingled now that it made concentrating on her work just about impossible. The interlude this morning on the floor was never far from her thoughts.

         She was relieved when Michael finished a half-hour later and they could leave the confines of her apartment. The fresh air helped clear her mind, as did the prospect of actually making progress on this case. They were on their way downtown to visit the first art gallery.

         "Let me see the list of places that deal in black market stuff," Rebecca said. "I want to see if I know any of them."

         "No." Michael took his eyes off the crowded road for a quick glance at her. "With you, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I'm nuts to be letting grandmother drag me into this with you in the first place."

         "You had a choice," she reminded him, not bothering to hide her triumph.

         "Some choice." He pulled into a parking lot near Sixth and Vine, next to an antique store. Michael stopped her from getting out of the car by placing his hand on her arm. "I hope you're as smart as I think you are. Watch what you say."

         He didn't give her time to dwell on his praise. He was almost in the store by the time she caught up with him.

         The interior was plush and tastefully, packed with antiques, artifacts, china, and Oriental rugs. There wasn't a sales counter in sight. Probably considered something so normal gauche. A balding, rotund man in a light suit, blue shirt, and a yellow tie appeared from a back office

         "May I help you?"

         "I hope so," Michael said politely. "Your shop came highly recommended." He held the figurine out to the man. "I recently inherited this from an aunt. Can you tell me something about it?"

         Pudgy fingers turned the piece over as the shop owner studied it intently. "I'm familiar with the style, naturally, but not the piece itself. My books may have something on it." He glanced up at them. "If you'd like me to check?"

         "We'd appreciate any help you can give us."

         His eyes narrowed as he looked at Michael. "Are you interested in selling this piece?"

         "It depends on its value and history, Michael replied.

         The man nodded and gestured elegantly with a wave of his hand, indicating the posh surroundings. "Enjoy."

         He went back into the office--leaving the door open, they noticed, lest they enjoy too much--and the pair wandered around the tiny gallery.

         "There aren't any price tags," Rebecca whispered.

         Michael grinned. "You know the saying. If you have to ask..." They could hear a low-pitched voice coming from the office now. It lured them and they hovered just outside the office door, trying to hear what was being said.

         "He doesn't reveal much," Rebecca muttered.

         Michael placed a finger to his lips. But she was right. The man was obviously talking to someone on the phone, and it wasn't much of a conversation, at least on this end. Other than an occasional yes or no, he said nothing else. Michael and Rebecca tiptoed away when be hung up. They were by the front entrance as he came out of the office.

         "I have a bit of information that might help you," the man announced cheerfully. "Little wonder I recognize the style of the piece. Italian Renaissance of course, and with a bit of mystery in its past. It seems the original disappeared during the Second World War. Before the war, there were a lot of copies made, of which this is a handsome example, but none since that time."

         Michael accepted the figurine from him. "Has the original ever been located?"

         "No, and it's worth millions." A gleam of avarice shone in his eyes. "The Sicilian family who last owned it has a long-standing reward for its return.

         "My goodness! You found all this in a book?" Rebecca asked with open admiration.

         "No, ma'am." He preened at her praise. "I didn't find the piece in any of my books, so I made a call to a friend who knows more about Italian Renaissance than I do."

         "That was very kind of you," Rebecca murmured.

         He handed Michael a business card with another gallery's name embossed on it. "This little gallery specializes in works of this sort. I really don't think this copy is valuable enough to be of interest to them. But your piece is an exceptionally good reproduction."

         "Thank you."

         They left the shop, both equally confused. Italian Renaissance? Do good copies have any value? Rebecca asked him once they were back in the car.

         "Beats me." Michael backed out of the parking space and joined the traffic at a red light. "Grandfather never talked about his work or the war."

         Rebecca leaned back in the seat. "Is the address of that other gallery on your list?"

         "No, and it's in Northern Kentucky."

         "Is that where we're going now?"

         "No. I don't trust that guy."

         Michael took the turn to get to the entrance to Reading Road and headed out from the downtown area.

         She thought for a few minutes while Michael maneuvered them into the fast-moving flow of traffic.

         "Good. I don't, either. So what are we going to do? Get a second opinion?"

         "Something like that. There's a place out on McMillan that's suspected of dealing in black market artwork, although it's never been proven. My partner and I worked on the case for several years. We didn't find a thing."

         Intrigued at something in his voice, Rebecca kept talking. "You really miss having your partner around, don't you?"

         "Yes, I do," Michael admitted. "I miss his levelheaded decision-making. Maybe I wouldn't be on suspension if he'd been here to slow me down. Then again, we'd probably both be on suspension together.

          "Why'd he move?" Rebecca pressed on.

         "Richie loves his wife and she hated living in a city as big as Cincinnati. Thought it was too dangerous to raise kids here."

         Michael glanced at her, but her face showed only casual interest. "There's violence in every town, no matter what size it is. And trouble has a way of finding people, even if they don't go looking for it. If you're smart, you pick the safest area you can afford to live in, and you stay out of the bad."

         "Where do you live?"

         "You slipped up," Michael informed her. "You should have asked Grandmother that along with your other questions about me."

         "I didn't ask her anything, she volunteered." Rebecca blushed. Not that she had done anything to stop Sarah from rattling on and on about her grandson.

         "That's not the way I heard it."

         Despite his moodiness, and his tendency to dominate, she liked Michael. A lot. But this time her eyes were wide open. Before she entered into any kind of relationship, Rebecca wanted to know all about him.

         "Sarah believes you've never married or had a long-term relationship because of your parents." Rebecca stopped herself, for a second. This was getting very personal. But then, she had been having some pretty personal thoughts lately. She went on. "Is that true?"

          She could see that his rotten childhood was not something he wanted to talk about. "Probably." His hands tightened on the wheel. "My parents were still in high school when they had to get married. They fought over anything and everything when I was little. My mother took off when I was twelve. One of those 'find myself' adventures. I guess she's still looking. She's on her third or fourth husband, but no more kids."

         "But you had Sarah, didn't you?"

         "Not until I was fourteen," Michael explained. "My father got the wanderlust too, that year and brought me to Cincinnati from Houston, supposedly for a visit. The day after we arrived, he dumped me on Grandmother and Grandfather. He still sends a postcard now and then, but I haven't seen him in a long time."

         How sad. His childhood had been so different from hers that she had a hard time thinking of it as real. Her parents had adored her, as had her two older brothers. She'd been subjected to very little family strife and had never once heard her parents fight. They were both opinionated and still had many lively discussions, but that wasn't fighting. it was more like the little talks she and Michael had lately.

         "Did your grandparents mind having you around?"

         "Oh, no." Michael smiled. "Grandfather was away on business at the time and when he came home two weeks later, Grandmother had worked out a schedule that eventually suited everyone.

         There was laughter in his voice that told Rebecca there was more to the story. "I bet you weren't a model teenager, either."

         "You got that right." Michael chuckled. "I'd never had any kind of schedule and it was an adjustment, for all of us. They were very strict and demanded a lot of me, but they loved me and let me know when I did something right, too."

         "You were a lucky kid."

         "I'll say. With parents like mine, I could have ended up on the other side of the law. If it wasn't for my grandparents, I wouldn't be where I am today."

         "On suspension?"

         "Can't blame Grandmother for that. She taught first grade for forty years and thought a good education was vital but I was a rotten student. She wouldn't accept anything less than straight A's. And Grandfather backed her up." Another short pause. "It was tough on us when he died."

         Rebecca started to speak but didn't know what to say. His revealing anything about himself surprised her, and she didn't want to push her luck.

         Michael drove into an alley then parked behind a building that faced onto McMillan. "The shop is right ahead."

         "Really?" She took a look at the back doors and trash containers. "Well, I'll be. You'd never know it was there."

         Michael parked a few steps from a red-brick arch which covered a fancy, black-iron grillwork. They got out of the car and were hit by the smell of hamburgers cooking in the restaurant next door. He pushed a button in the middle of a polished brass plate on the grillwork.

         "Yes?" A feminine voice came from a speaker behind the grill, but they couldn't see anyone. Michael held up a police badge.

         "Mrs. Ferigno, my name is Michael Hall and I'd like to ask you a few questions."

         The clicking sound of locks releasing was followed by a door opening beyond the grillwork. An older woman dressed in black spoke softly. "What going on?"

         Michael held the door for Rebecca and then followed her into the tiny shop.

         In sharp contrast to the opulent gallery they had just left the sparsely decorated room displayed only a few small pieces of statuary. Each highlighted by its own spot lamp. Each item sat atop a tall ornately carved stand. This rear room was closed off from the front of the store by a red curtain.

         "How may I help you?"

         Michael moved forward, invading the woman's space and forcing her to step through the red curtain exposing the rest of the store. He opened his hand to reveal the figurine and waited for her reaction.

         A flickering of her dark eyes was her only movement. She glanced at him with a puzzled look. "Yes?"

         "Have you seen this before?"

         She held out her hand, palm up. "May I?"


         Long, thin fingers caressed the marble figure as if they were enjoying the feel of the smooth stone. "I need better light. Come this way."

         She turned and stepped back through the curtain, Michael on her heels. The woman sat down at a spotless, black-lacquer desk and adjusted a lighted magnifying lens.

         "Fascinating." She moved it around, turned on another light over the desk, her fingers constantly moving and caressing the smooth surface.

         "I have seen a photograph of the real one," the woman murmured softly. "The striations of gray and pink are lovely. There are special markings on the bottom, ancient symbols whose meanings are long forgotten except to a few." She turned and, almost reluctantly, handed the piece back to Michael. "This is a better than average copy.

         One finds many copies in this country. They are usually inferior because of the inferior American stone. This one, however, is made of superb Italian Marble."

         Michael closed his fingers around the statuette. "Is the original very old?"

         "Not by Italian standards. It's from the time of Michael Angelo."

         "Did he make it?"

         "No one knows. But if he didn't, it was made by one of his contemporaries who copied him very well." Mrs. Ferigno rose gracefully and led them back into the main storeroom.

         "Then why is it so valuable?" Rebecca asked.

         "With no confirmation that it was made by the great artist, its value does not come from what it is, but from what happened later. It was given to a very wealthy Italian businessman by his young bride on their first anniversary as a token of her love."

         Rebecca knew nothing about this woman or her shop, but it was apparent that everything here, including this story, was designed to create an effect--to add value to her wares. Still, her manner, tone and the sadness made it believable.

         "What happened?"

         "Less than a year later, the man lost both his wife and his son from complications of childbirth." Mrs. Ferigno turned and her face became lost in the shadows of the room. "During the war the piece...ah... disappeared. The businessman was the head of one of the most powerful families in Sicily, so everyone thought that no one would dare keep it and that it would be returned. When it was not he put up a huge reward for it. He made threats against anyone found with it. But still, it was never returned."

         "Is the reward still being offered?"

         "Oh, yes. He is a very old man now, and each year he increases the reward. Dealers, such as myself, all know about it, and we would all like to get our hands on the real thing and collect the reward."

         "Do you know him?" Rebecca asked, wondering if it was the story or something else that affected her so.

         The woman shook her head. "No. I only know the story behind the figure. Is there anything else?"

         "No. Thank you for your time," Michael said.
* * *

         "Thank you for stopping." The woman smiled softly as they left. Once they were outside she engaged the locks and hurried to her desk.

         From a drawer, she pulled out a simple black phone and dialed a number. When an answering machine told her to leave a message she spoke clearly. "The two you described have been here."

         She put the receiver down, hesitated, then picked it back up and dialed a different number, once again leaving a message. "There have been inquiries about the figure. Call me if you want more details."

         Her hands were shaky as she pulled a book from her pocket and found the phone number she'd written there only days before. The man was too powerful to cross. Her family would suffer if she did.

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