Copyright © 2012 Richard A. Uhlig, Sr.
All rights reserved, Wild Child Publishing.
Pete pounded on the door at the museum’s back entrance and stared obliquely into the security camera above his head. The door flew open and the night guard exclaimed, “Monsieur Barclay, what a very nice surprise.”
“Shut the door, quickly, and lock it.” Pete snapped as he swept past the guard.
“Is something wrong, Monsieur Curator?”
“Perhaps,” Pete answered, keeping his back to the guard. “Turn off all the alarms. Someone may have tampered with a painting in the Rococo Room. I’m here to inspect.”
“Shall I accompany you, sir?”
“No. You stay at your station and let no one in. No one, do you understand?”
Pete opened an interior door.
“What?” Pete said sharply without looking back.
“That’s not the door to the Rococo room. It’s over there.”
“Of course, Merci.”
The Rococo Room was dimly lit, airless and warm. Most museums had temperature-controlled environments. Pete figured Monsieur Barclay turned the air conditioning off at night for budgetary reasons. Pete stepped lightly across the stone floor, past the giant marble Apollo with its laurel wreath and lyre, directly over to the Chardin painting. No place is quieter than a museum at night. The stillness eased the jittery feeling in his legs. He disconnected the gilded rope barrier and approached the glass case that protected the Chardin. He took a deep breath and opened the case. No alarms sounded. He exhaled. The guard had obeyed his command.
Looking down the leading edge of his clay nose, Pete began separating the priceless canvas from its backing and gilded frame with a razor blade. Beads of sweat formed under his mask of latex. Inch by slow inch the canvas loosened. Every second seemed an hour. Once Pete freed the Chardin from its frame, he gingerly rolled up the painting and applied a small piece of tape to each end of the canvas to prevent it from unrolling. He rested the scrolled canvas against the wall.
He removed the cardboard tube from his pants leg and tapped out his forgery. He then secured his reproduction of the Chardin to the backing of the empty frame with a few strategically placed buttons of glue. He mounted his forgery in the place of honor inside the glass case.
Next, he fitted the rolled-up Chardin into the cardboard tube. A sudden fear gripped him and he hissed, “Oh, shit.” His latex mask had loosened and he could feel it slide every so slightly across the skin of his face. Only the fake bushy eyebrows prevented latex from falling over his eyes. The room was entirely too warm. Before he could work the cardboard tube down into his pants leg, disaster struck. His monster fake nose fell from his face. He caught it in his hand, a glob of softened clay. Then the door at the other end of the room swung open and light flooded in. Pete ducked behind the marble Apollo and watched a man in a brown uniform saunter into the Rococo with a bucket and a mop.
Pushing his wet mop, the janitor moved to and fro across the floor. Pete moved in small turns around the statue of Apollo to stay out of sight, the glob of clay in one hand and the cardboard tube containing the precious Chardin in the other. His disguise lost, he needed another way out.
When the janitor turned his back to the Apollo, Pete quickly tiptoed across the floor into a darkened corridor where marble and bronze busts on pedestals lined the walls, their frozen faces staring eerily at the intruder. Before he got twenty feet into the corridor, Pete heard the guard’s voice calling out from the Rococo room, “Monsieur Barclay. What is taking so long? Is everything all right? Monsieur Barclay! Where are you?”
Pete rushed to the end of the corridor and climbed a stone stairway to the second floor of the museum. Through a door guarded by two ancient porphyry lions he entered a room of Greco-Roman sculptures and hurried over to an arched window of frosted glass. He unlatched the window, threw it open and stared down at the ground 15 feet below.
Footfalls echoed from the stairway. Pete tossed the glob of clay out the window and then slid his feet and legs out. Hanging by one hand to the ledge of window, the cardboard tube in his opposite hand, he dangled momentarily, then let go. The fall to the ground stung his feet but he landed upright, the Chardin intact. In the cover of darkness, he ran across the grounds to the parking lot and jumped into his Renault. He drove off, the cardboard tube with the Chardin on the seat beside him.