Rousseau le Croix sat on a plastic chair, trying hard to familiarize himself with his new environment. His vision was blurred, and something warm oozed down his sinuses and down the back of his throat. He gagged, coughed, and gasped.
Brown smudges on the smoky wall mirror to his left shed light on le Croix’s predicament—that, and the grimy fluorescent tubes’ infrequent buzz-flicker overhead.
An interrogation room:
“Why are you in Amsterdam, Mister le Croix? We’ve been watching you for three years now, and all the evidence of your excursions to Johannesburg, Tel Aviv, your recent whoring around in Bangkok, your trip to Mumbai, and your opium-fueled nights in Pakistan are in here.”
A heavy envelope hit the once-white Formica table top.
“Photos. Evidence. Where are they, le Croix?”
Le Croix was finding it hard to understand Inspector De Jongh’s words (let alone his intentions) because the man’s moustache seemed to cover both his upper and lower lip, quivering in such a way that it caused the sounds of his already thick Dutch accent to crumble into little puzzles of befuddlement.
Every now and again the well-groomed moustache would reveal a set of large yellow teeth. In le Croix’s opinion, Inspector De Jongh could practise better oral hygiene, especially when it came to his breath.
He didn’t like the inspector’s piercing blue eyes either; there was menace in them.
De Jongh retrieved a comb in the back pocket of his uniform trousers, and for a moment le Croix thought the inspector was going to brush his moustache. De Jongh parted his hair in such a way that it covered the bald patch that was growing like an experiment-gone-wrong on the side of his egg-shaped head.
“How many are there, le Croix? How many?” De Jongh was messaging his temples now; a definite stress signal.
“Could I perhaps have a cigarette, Inspector?” le Croix asked in a thick French accent, and realised his day was bordering on the bizarre side when De Jongh smiled and held out a pack of menthols.
Le Croix thought of declining (he was convinced menthol cigarettes shrink your testicles; he wanted to go back to Bangkok in December), but that would be insulting, and he could see that De Jongh was the kind of man who wouldn’t take it well. Besides, with all that blood in his mouth, le Croix thought probably wouldn’t even taste the tobacco.
De Jongh licked his lips and moistened the white filter. He lit it and placed in le Croix’s mouth. This was his first cigarette in eight years. Wooziness vanished into clouds of Vermeerian euphoria (and a violent head spin). For a brief moment De Jongh vanished with the purple haze; for a second it was only him, Rousseau le Croix, in the room.
It all came back to him now.
It was about four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Le Croix wiped clean his palette knife and laid it down next to the crumpled paint tubes. Using the same turpentine rag to remove the black spots on his manicured nails, he thought about the woman in the painting.
“I hope there weren’t any problems at customs,” he mumbled to himself, staring into her black linseed oil eyes on the canvas. A smile of content highlighted the look of approval on his face.
“Please don’t be angry with me for painting your eyes black.”
Out of the corner of his eye le Croix spotted a white van pulling into the driveway of his canal house. The sticker on the side of their vehicle, Amsterdam Electric, was flapping in a gust of van Gogh yellow autumn when the man on the passenger side got out and slammed the door shut. He tugged at his blue overall and pulled a white cap over his eyes, demonstrating less eloquence than a crusty turd in a Mumbai slum.
The driver, dressed in a bright orange overall and looking around nervously as if he was about to commit arson, confirmed le Croix’s suspicions.
Taking his time, Le Croix walked over to the window and opened the shutters. He knocked over a blue pot of Brylcreem from the windowsill but didn’t pick it up. He ran a hand through his hair and felt the cool air on his scar where the breeze whistled through the gap between the window frame and wall.
He squinted. The view over the Prinsengracht was breathtaking in autumn; the 17th century architecture of the other canal houses a water colour painting in itself that reminded him Uemura Shoen’s work, but it was the rippling reflection of the Northern Church on the dark water that caught his eye in particular.
He felt desperate for a cigarette when they knocked on his front door.
Le Croix exhaled another puff of cigarette smoke. “What do you want from me Inspector?” He flicked the half-smoked menthol at De Jongh’s feet.
The inspector tilted his head and frowned with blue fire in his eyes. “The stones,” he hissed.
Le Croix avoided eye contact and leaned forward to get a better look at one of the pictures that slipped out of the envelope when De Jongh had dropped it on the table. There was a sharp pain in his right side, and he sat back in his chair with a grunt.
De Jongh nodded as if someone had just whispered the meaning of life in his ear and it made perfect sense. He looked in the direction of the one-way mirror and lit a cigarette for himself.
“Open it,” ordered De Jongh. “Your hands aren’t tied.”
Le Croix found it difficult opening the envelope. His painting hand was swollen, the wrist either cracked or broken. He used his right hand instead, but again the pain in his ribs was too much to bear, and he dropped it.
“Godverdomme!” bellowed De Jongh and threw his cigarette down in a frustrated sparkle of orange. He stomped over and stuck his forefinger into le Croix’s left eye.
“Merde yourself, you French fuck! You … you … you have them. All of them. All these pictures—” he was fanning le Croix with the envelope “—these people you’ve been meeting with … all of them.”
“I haven’t a clue what you’re on about, Inspector. May I have a look for myself?”
Le Croix smirked when De Jongh’s fingers came in contact with his blood on the envelope. The inspector wiped his hands on his trousers, sighed, and then spread the photographs out in front of le Croix.
He took his time in examining the pictures and drew in a breath as if he had something to say. He didn’t say anything and picked up the first photo again.
De Jongh’s checks were Vermeer red. “It’s not as if you’ve never seen them before, le Croix! You are in most of them as well! All those people in the pictures are—”
“Art dealers. Correct. I don’t see what that’s got to do with me, Inspector. Adriano Aguerre—” le Croix held up the third picture, “—was a Formula One racing car driver, for the love of God. He’s one of my best friends. I don’t know what you want from me! My lawyer will be in touch.”
Adriano Aguerre, former race car driver and famous architect, had never been one for art. That was before he met Annette.
It was on the balcony of his plush Buenos Aires apartment where he fell in love with her. The way she held her wine and jolted her head back in appreciation of his humor drove him mad with lust.
Adriano and Annette, the perfect match, he thought.
She taught him so much over the last eight years, both physically and mentally, that he asked her hand in marriage four years ago.
Anette was an art lover, and Adriano had no choice to become one, too. Together they traveled to the world’s most exotic hotspots, all in the name of art.
What Annette wanted, Annette got.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” Adriano reached for her hand and gave her a reassuring smile.
“It’s just the place. The people, my love,” she said. “You know how I am. There’s something about auction houses that makes me uncomfortable. There’s so much greed and evil between these walls.”
Annette took off her dark glasses and placed them in her handbag.
“I know. After this we can go to the hotel room and open a bottle of champagne. Relax. Come on, you’ll be fine. This is Sotheby’s, after all.”
Adriano was a fierce bidder, and they ended up buying an orange and red watercolour on silk by the Japanese artist, Uemura Shoen.
“That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, Adriano. Pinch me; I think I’m dreaming.”
Annette le Croix lied, of course, but she did love Adriano Aguerre, even it was only for a fleeting moment when he started bidding for a Rousseau le Croix.
“Isn’t it just amazing?” Anette said and held her gloved hand over her mouth.
Adriano frowned. “The model in the painting looks almost exactly like you.”
Annette laughed out loud. Even though her eyes were darker in the painting, they sparkled like diamonds.