Dr. Bennington Cole and his wife, Maggie, walked up to the entrance of the Norton Simon Museum. "I'm going to miss Pasadena," Maggie said.
"I will too, Love," Ben said, holding the door for her. "I never would have believed we'd make such wonderful friends at a university that specializes in science and maths."
"Not to mention helping the FBI solve one of the biggest art heists in history. I'm going to frame your article when it's published," she murmured, standing on tip toes to kiss Ben on the cheek.
"Ah, my biggest fan," he said as he gave her a squeeze. "Now, shall we at least try to act like professionals whilst we're in the museum?"
"Oh, but of course, sir. I never tire of being tutored in the veddy veddy British proprieties."
"And I never tire of having all those layers of strait-laced proprieties stripped away by my wild and crazy colonist." They got in line behind a group of rowdy school kids, and Ben gave Maggie's hand another squeeze. "Perhaps some day, I'll feel free to act like that young chap over there.
Maggie followed Ben's gaze and saw a boy who appeared to be about eight years old. He was grinning and practically vibrating. He was poking the boy beside him and saying, "We're gonna see the pictures. We're gonna see the pictures."
Maggie poked Ben, and leaned to whisper in his ear, "We're gonna see the pictures!"
"And, here I thought the museum would be empty on a weekday," Ben murmured. They reached the front desk, and Ben paid the admission. "Well, my dear, where would you like to start? Nineteenth Century European is this way."
"Why don't we save the best 'til last? Let's see what's going on in the basement first. I am assuming, of course, that the crowd will head towards the impressionists first. Maybe it'll clear out before we get there. Remember when we came with Charlie, Amita and Larry?"
"Of course. I remember Charlie dragging Larry off to see the light and space movement exhibition downstairs. And he was in awe of the Rembrandt etchings, wasn't he?"
Maggie laughed. "He has such a hunger for learning. All three of them do. But Charlie is downright infectious."
"Perhaps we can talk him into visiting for a semester or two at the art institute."
Maggie shook her head. "He's a California boy through and through, so if we're going to drag him to upstate New York, it's going to have to be for a summer session. I can't picture him in a Syracuse snow storm."
"He did attend Princeton, so he has experienced winter."
They strolled through the South Asian gallery, admiring the sculptures from India. "Oh my gosh, look," Maggie said, pointing at a nearly life size black statue. "It's Lakshmi!"
"Right, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, and the wife of Vishnu. Why?"
"That's Amita's grandmother's name, isn't it?"
Ben chuckled. "You're right. And from what Amita says of her, she is a whiz at investments, so she's apparently very aptly named."
They reached the special exhibits gallery, and were disappointed to find it closed. According to the sign, they were preparing an exhibit on the life of Norton Simon. "Ah, well," Maggie said. "let's head back upstairs."
As they had agreed, they saved their favorites until last, finally walking into the nineteenth century wing just as the school group was leaving. Ben laughed, "You are an amazing prognosticator, my dear."
"And don't you forget it."
Hand in hand, they moved from painting to painting. As they paused in front of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting of a red-headed woman in a garden, Maggie gasped. "His colors are absolutely beautiful, aren't they?"
"Yes, they are. And it rather looks like a pastel, doesn't it?"
"Is that cardboard?" Maggie leaned forward to get a closer look at the painting.
"It is," Ben said. "Amazing. You know, when I first studied painting, my teacher told us to never ever leave any part of the ground uncovered, and yet Toulouse-Lautrec has used the exposed cardboard to great effect, hasn't he?"
"Mmm hmm," Maggie agreed. A Courbet painting of cliffs had caught her attention. Ben had drifted off in the direction of a painting of a woman in Moorish costume by Bazille. They both avoided the crowds in front of the Van Goghs.
Ben noticed a young woman pushing a boy in a wheelchair. The woman seemed uninterested in the paintings, but the boy was fascinated. He had a sketchbook and was earnestly working on copying Van Gogh's portrait of the artist's mother. Ben couldn't resist a peek. The boy looked up with a defensive expression on his face and started to close the sketchbook.
"Please," Ben said, "don't let me interrupt you. You're doing beautiful work."
"Thank you," the boy said, glancing at the woman. "I like trying to draw the paintings."
Ben smiled. "Then please continue. I'm sorry I interrupted."
"That's okay." The boy turned back to his work.
The woman narrowed her eyes at Ben and said, "They told us it was all right if he..."
Ben realized it would be best if he extracted himself from this situation quickly. "It's more than all right. It's wonderful to see a young man so interested in a great artist like Van Gogh." Without waiting for a reply, he turned to walk away. "Have a good day."
As he stepped into the next room, he heard a loud thump above his head. He looked up just in time to see the skylight shatter, showering the gallery visitors with glass. Alarms started to wail as a parachutist dropped into the room. He heard a second crash down the hall, and suddenly realized he didn't know where Maggie was. "Maggie?!" he called.
"Ben! Over here!" she was pressed up against the wall across from him. "Are you okay?"
Security guards swarmed into the room. One grabbed the parachutist, and the others checked the paintings. "Everybody stay put!" One of them yelled.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw movement in the gallery behind him. He stepped back into the doorway. The woman with the wheelchair had removed the Van Gogh portrait from the wall and was stuffing it into the back of the chair. "Stop!" Ben turned and stepped toward her.
She raised something that looked like a science fiction stun gun and pointed it at him. Before he could react, she fired. Something struck him in the chest, and he was instantly convulsed by what felt like a million volts. Through the fog of pain, he was vaguely aware of slamming into the floor. Miraculously, the pain ended as suddenly as it had begun, and he lay on the floor gasping.
"Ben!" Maggie dropped to her knees beside him and he blinked up at her.
"Hullo," he murmured. "What the bloody hell was that?"
"There's something stuck in you. With wires."
Someone above him said, "It's a taser." Ben looked toward the voice. It appeared to be a secuirty guard. "Sir, please lie still. The paramedics are coming to have a look at you."
Ben felt around his chest until his shaking fingers touched the wires Maggie had mentioned. They were attached to some sort of probes that had gone through his shirt and were embedded in his skin. "Ouch," he said as he moved one of the probes.
"Sir, please leave those alone," the guard said. "The paramedics will remove them and bandage the wounds for you. They're not going to do any damage where they are."
"Ben, does it hurt anywhere else?" Maggie said, brushing his hair back from his forehead.
"I think I hit my head when I fell. But other than that, amazingly, nothing hurts." Suddenly, he sat up. "The Van Gogh. The woman with the little boy in the wheelchair took it. She was the one who shot me with that taser."
The security guard ran past Ben and Maggie and stared at the blank spot on the wall. He swore vehemently and graphically and pulled out his radio. "Secure the exits. Gallery 23 has been hit. The suspect is a woman..." he turned to Ben. "Description?"
"Mid thirties, petite, long blonde hair, pushing a young boy in one of those racing wheelchairs."
The guard relayed the description and returned to Ben's side. "Sir, I'm afraid we're going to have to detain you. The feds are going to want to talk to you about this."
"The feds?" Maggie asked. "Why?"
Ben shifted backwards so he could lean against the wall. "High end art thefts are now under the FBI's jurisdiction." He glanced at the security guard. "I don't suppose we could request a specific Special Agent?"
Charlie Eppes was in the middle of a complex explanation to an upper level class when he felt his cell phone vibrating. He glanced at the display. It was his older brother, Don. Probably some FBI case that required him to wave his magical mathematical wand and save the day. Charlie sighed. "Excuse me a second. I need to take this... Yes?"
"Charlie, am I interrupting?"
"Yes, you are. What can I do for you?"
"There's been a pretty spectacular theft at the Norton Simon. Liz and I are on the way there now. Can you meet us there?"
Charlie sighed. "I'll be there in an hour."
"An hour? Charlie, that's..."
"It's the best I can do. Goodbye." Charlie snapped his phone shut and put it back in his pocket. "I am sorry for that interruption. Has everyone followed my explanation so far? Good.."
Don closed his cell phone and stared at it for a moment.
"The light's green," Liz Warner said gently.
Don stuffed the phone into his pocket and pulled into the intersection. "That was weird."
Liz grinned. "Isn't every conversation with Charlie weird? Or was that weirder than normal?"
It was definitely weirder than normal. He seemed upset about something. Or angry. He said he'll meet us at the museum in an hour."
"An hour?" Liz shrugged. "Well, we'll probably still be there. I don't understand why you want Charlie on this anyway. I mean, I don't see how his math will be helpful in tracking down an art thief."
"You'd be amazed what Charlie can track down with his math," Don said softly. He glanced at Liz. "You don't get him, do you?"
"I don't. I know he's helped you guys a lot. I've seen the kind of stuff he can do. But there must be cases he can't help with."
"There are, but they're few and far between, believe me." Don pulled into the museum parking lot. He showed his badge to the security guard, who waved them through. "Just turn him loose on a problem. He'll tell you if he can't solve it. And if he can, just stand back and watch in amazement. That's what I do."
"Do you understand half of what he does?"
Don laughed. "Not even close. But he does a good job of explaining it if you ask him."
"I don't think he likes me," Liz said softly.
"Charlie likes everybody." Don parked and climbed out. "Let's go see what we've got here."
Liz caught up with Don as he crossed the parking lot. "Haven't you seen the way he scowls when I talk to him?"
"I can't say as I have," Don said. He showed his badge and introduced himself to the guards at the front door.
"Agent Eppes," one of the guards said. "I'm Frank Wilson, head of security here. We've got a lot of witnesses for you to talk to, including one gentleman who was tasered by the suspect."
"Interesting," Don said. "This is Special Agent Liz Warner."
Frank shook hands with Liz. "Nice to meet you."
Don said, "The rest of my team should be here shortly. One of them is a consultant, so he won't have a badge. His name is Charles Eppes."
"Any relation? Or is this my day to meet people named Eppes?"
Don laughed. "He's my brother. Saved me doing a background check."
Frank laughed. "Fair enough." He turned to one of the other guards. "Tommy, cover the front door for me. I'm gonna take the feds here to the scene of the crime." As they walked through the lobby, Frank said. "In all my years in museum security, I've never heard of a heist like this. They actually hired four skydivers to crash through the skylights to create a distraction. We've got all four under arrest, but they all claim they were hired to do this as part of some anti-capitalist demonstration or something."
"Sounds kind of dangerous for a political demonstration," Don said.
"Yeah. I thought so too. You guys should have fun interrogating them and checking their backgrounds."
"Aw, Frank," Liz said with a broad grin, "I figured you would have done that already."
Frank snorted. "We're not set up to handle anything more complicated than people getting too close to the art or shoplifting in the gift shop. This one is all yours. Here we are. The skydivers came through the skylights in the galleries to our immediate left and right, and the two galleries two doors down. The next door on your left is the gallery where the Van Gogh was stolen. The guy who got zapped is in there. We've put everyone else in the auditorium."
Don nodded thoughtfully. "I'll talk to the witness first. Liz, why don't you take a look into the galleries. Don't go in. We'll let the crime scene techs handle that. Then meet me in here." He walked into the crime scene and stopped, stunned. "Ben? Maggie?"
Ben Cole sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, gazing into space. Maggie sat beside him, holding his hand. They jumped and looked up when they heard Don's voice. Ben scrambled to his feet and helped Maggie up. "Don! I was hoping they'd send you."
Don's eyes narrowed. "This is quite a coincidence."
"Ah, yes. I don't know if trouble follows us, or if we follow trouble."
Don chewed on his lip as he nodded. "Either way. Are you okay? I heard you got tasered."
"I'm fine now. I bumped my head when I hit the floor. Fortunately the only lasting effect of the taser is two small puncture wounds in my chest. But that was an experience I hope never to repeat."
"I can imagine. I've seen it demonstrated, but I didn't volunteer to try it."
Don looked up as Liz entered. "Special Agent Liz Warner, this is Dr. Ben Cole and his wife Maggie. They consulted with us on the Manet case that turned out to lead us to the solution of the Gardner theft. Liz will be investigating the possible drug trade connection."
Liz stepped forward and shook hands with Ben and then with Maggie. "Wow. The Gardner case, huh? That was amazing work."
"Thanks," Maggie said. "We just happened to be around when Don found a stolen Manet." She turned to Don. "You mentioned the drug trade. Do you already have some idea what this was about?"
Don laughed. "We have no idea at all. But Liz tells me more and more high end thefts are related to drugs, so I asked her to work with my team on this case."
"Makes sense to me," Ben said. "Where do you want to start?"
"Well," Don said, "why don't you start with a step by step description of what happened? We'll leave the expert consultation for later. Just be witnesses for now."
Ben sat on the long padded bench in the middle of the room, facing the spot where the Van Gogh had hung. "I'll start with the moment we walked to the Nineteenth Century wing, unless you'd like me to start earlier."
Ben took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "We came up the spiral staircase from the basement, then came through the lobby to this wing." Ben proceeded with his recollection, occasionally asking Maggie to help clarify a detail, or pausing to answer a question from Don or Liz. When he finished, he said, "Would you like us to sketch the suspects for you, Don?"
Liz said, "I'll have them send an artist..."
Don laughed. "That won't be necessary. Ben and Maggie can do the job just fine themselves. Find Frank and see if he can scare up a sketch pad and pencils for Ben."
"Gee, Eppes," Liz said, "your consultants never cease to amaze me." She left the room just as Charlie entered. "Well, speak of the devil. Hi, Charlie."
"Hi, Liz," Charlie nodded as he passed her, looking for his brother. He grinned as he saw Ben and Maggie, "Wow! Don called you two in on this?"
"Charlie!" Maggie stood and gave him a hug. "The case is as good as solved now."
Charlie rolled his eyes and met Don's gaze. "Hey, Don, I'm sorry I was kind of short with you earlier."
Don chuckled. "Hey, Buddy, I hate to break it to you, but you're always short."
Charlie tried to maintain a scowl, but it dissolved into a mischievous grin. "And you're always old. What's your point?"
"No point. Just making an observation. And I didn't call Ben and Maggie. They were already here."
Charlie's eyes widened as he pulled a notebook out of his his briefcase. "You were here when it happened? I saw one of the galleries where the skydivers came through the skylight. That must have been quite a sight."
"Oh, it was," Ben said. "I had just stepped back in there when the boots hit the glass."
Maggie added, "And then he came back in here just in time to be tasered by the thief."
"Oh, man. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. But if you ever have the opportunity to be tasered, I suggest you pass on it." He paused as he noticed Charlie gazing at the space where the Van Gogh had hung. "Don, I think Charlie's been hit with an inspiration."
"Looks like it," Don said. "What is it, Buddy?"
"Remember that case with the fake Pissarro? The guy who stole it used a taser, too. How often are tasers used in the commission of a crime? There are a lot of elements in this crime that might link to other crimes."
Liz came back into the room. "Frank's going to send someone to get pads and pencils. Charlie, I'm sorry to interrupt. You had an inspiration?"
Charlie scowled briefly and continued. "I was just saying that we need to find the elements in this case that show up in other cases..."
Liz chuckled, "This is the first time I've heard of parachutists crashing through skylights as a distraction during an art theft."
Charlie sighed and closed his notebook. "Listen, maybe I should just bow out of this..."
"No, Charlie!" Liz said putting her hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. Just ignore my smart mouth."
Charlie pursed his lips and nodded. "Okay. Sorry. It's been a long day. I won't just look for skydivers and skylights. But what about other crimes with unusual distractions? Or other crimes using kids in wheelchairs, or even babies in strollers? We've got to assume that whoever planned this is not only smart, but flashy."
Don nodded, "Too bad Megan's away on assignment. We could use a profiler. But it sounds to me like this guy's got a big ego. He's not only looking to get his hands on an expensive painting. He's looking to make a statement."
"Right," Liz said. "And with an ego that big, he's not likely to stop at one crime."
"You're catching on," Charlie said, smiling. He took out a pen and began scribbling in his notebook. As he wandered off toward the adjoining gallery, he said, "I'll need the witnesses' statements, and the files on big, flashy crimes. You might want to contact Interpol and see what they have. An ego this big probably thinks globally."