Part 3: Portrait of a Thief
Blair closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift back to his childhood, to the time Naomi met that self-styled Bohemian artist in New York. Alex Roderick was charming and worldly and totally anti-establishment—just the kind of guy Naomi found interesting. Snatches of conversations came to him.
“Blair, honey. You’ll never guess! Alex is going to Paris…and he’s taking us with him! He has a studio apartment in a nice neighborhood where lots of artists, poets, and intellectuals live. Think of all the interesting people we’ll meet—the things we’ll learn! Alex is sure he’ll be able to sell more of his artwork there.”
Blair tried to plaster the happiest grin on his face. Paris sounded so neat, but he didn’t want to go with Alex. Blair didn’t like him. Alex just seemed too phony. But his mom was so happy with her new boyfriend that Blair didn’t tell her how he felt.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, Blair! We’ll be expanding our horizons!”
“You’re right, Mom. We’ll see lots of great stuff.”
After being in Paris for several weeks, Blair thought maybe he’d been wrong about Roderick. Alex had paid for their tickets, let them live with him, shown them the city. He took them to all the best and most interesting places—he said his luck had changed and he was selling lots of his paintings. It was a dream come true for Blair and his mom. But dreams never last forever.
One day when Blair was playing with some of the local kids in the street, their games were interrupted by the sound of sirens nearby. He followed the other children as they all ran to see where the sirens had gone. The gendarmes had surrounded the building where Alex had his studio. After several tense minutes they came out, two handcuffed people beside them—Alex and Naomi.
Blair ran towards her. “MOM! What happened? What’s wrong?”
The authorities spotted him and a couple of them moved in his direction. Blair panicked and ran. They chased him for a few blocks, but gave up after he ran into an ally and scaled the wall.
Blair was scared. He didn’t know where to go, what to do. He didn’t want to end up in some foster home or orphanage. Would he ever see Naomi again? Why did they take her away? He only knew a few words of French and how to get around the neighborhood near the apartment. For four days, Blair lived on the streets, hiding in alleys, scrounging for food before he decided to try and trust someone. He went to Jack Seward’s apartment. Alex had introduced them to his old art teacher who lived nearby. The man had spoken English and seemed nice enough. Could Blair trust him?
Jack was an Englishman living in Paris, a soft-spoken gentleman. He also had a big heart where children were concerned. As soon as he saw the tired, shaking young boy at his door, Jack couldn’t turn him away. He took Blair into his home, no questions asked.
Blair found himself warm, well-fed and quickly asleep. When he woke up he was in the spare bedroom, the smell of breakfast swirling around his nose. For two days Blair warily accepted Jack’s hospitality, feeling the man out to see if he was really ok. Jack never bugged him for answers, instead talking to him about art and French history. Blair decided he could trust him.
As soon as Blair finished telling him what happened, Jack went to get his sweater. “Blair, my boy. This will not do. I knew that fool, Alex, was headed for trouble, but I didn’t think he would take your dear mother with him. You stay here while I go down to the station and find out what has happened to her.”
Several hours later Jack returned. He didn’t look happy. He had Blair sit at the table with him. “Blair, you’re a smart boy. That’s why I’m going to tell you the truth—no nonsense. I should’ve warned Naomi away from him. I knew he wasn’t a good enough artist to be living so fancy, but I wasn’t paying attention. I never dreamed he would turn to selling drugs. He was smuggling them, my boy. That’s why he traveled so much. The authorities have been keeping an eye on him for quite a while now. They went to his studio apartment to arrest him and your mother was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am sure Naomi is a good woman, but they found…suspicious items on her person. And they said she had a record in The States. This makes them think she was his partner in crime, or at least an accomplice.”
“Mom and her friends sometimes used Marijuana, Mr. Seward, but she said there wasn’t anything wrong with it even though the law said you weren’t supposed to use it. And she got arrested a couple of times for protesting wars and stuff, but she never hurt anybody!” Blair sat there for a moment, trying to take everything in. “What’s an accom…pull…iss?”
“An accomplice is a person who helps someone else commit a crime.” Jack got up to pace. “That idiot Alex! The kinds of drugs they found on him--nasty, vile drugs. Selling death to children! If he was so desperate for money, he should have come to me. I could have shown him other ways to get money…” He noticed Blair watching him. “Well, now. Enough of that. What shall be done with you, hm?”
“I…I don’t know. They are letting her go, aren’t they, Mr. Seward?”
“Call me Jack, lad. Of course they’ll let her go. But not for a while. In the meantime, how would you like to stay with an old reprobate like me?”
“What’s a re…pro…?”
Jack cut him off with an embarrassed cough. “We’ll get to that later. You ask a lot of questions. I like that. It shows you have a sharp mind. Some people never ask questions and never learn anything worthwhile. Would you like to stay here, my boy? It will be nice to have someone young around the old place. You can write to you mother if you wish and ask her if it’s all right. I’ll take it to her for you and bring back her answer.”
That night Blair wrote the first of many letters to Naomi that Jack would deliver. And the next evening he received the first of many replies. He would be staying with Jack, an arrangement that lasted over a year. When Naomi finally got out, she and Blair stayed with Jack for several more months until she could get enough money for them to go back to the U.S. Naomi spent a lot of time away from the apartment trying to scrounge up some cash—time Blair spent with Jack.
Jack was one of the smartest people Blair ever met. He seemed to know a little bit about everything, especially cool stuff like how to open locked doors and how to sneak into places. But Jack really liked to talk about French art and history. As the weeks went by, Blair got pulled further and further into Jack’s world. And then things began to change. Blair wasn’t even sure when it began, but soon he was helping Jack mix paints and make copies of paintings from photographs. Jack would also have him study art styles of different famous painters. After a few months of such intense study, he started bringing real paintings into the apartment for Blair to look at. He was supposed to figure out if they were fakes or not and then try to copy them. Then Jack would tell him what he’d done wrong or right and take the paintings away. New ones would appear a few weeks later. At the time, nothing about what they were doing seemed sinister, not even the strangers who sometimes stopped by with large packages in the middle of the night. Jack made it all seem like business as usual. It wasn’t until almost ten months later that Blair found out Jack was the notorious art thief, forger, and fence known as The Prince. But by then, Blair was a part of that world, too. He realized what they were doing was wrong, but Jack always had a way of talking him round.
“Now, Blair, my boy. We’re not stealing these paintings—merely reacquiring them. All of these works belonged to my mother’s side of the family before the War and were taken by force or trickery. I owe it to my royal French ancestors to get them back where they belong. It broke my mother’s heart to see them taken away—especially out of the country. In the hands of Philistines, mind you! People who saw art as an investment rather than the miraculous expression of the human soul that it is.”
“But what about the fakes we paint? People think they’re real. Isn’t that wrong?”
“Ah, Blair. How can it be wrong if it makes the buyers happy? They’re getting something beautiful to grace the walls of their homes.”
“But they think they’ve got the real thing!”
“If someone gave you a fake gold watch and told you it was real gold, and your whole life you believed it was gold, did you get less joy from the watch because it wasn’t?”
“I…I guess not.”
“Well, there you go, lad. We’re giving beautiful dreams to people who would never truly be able to afford the real thing. Let them believe what they have is real if it makes them happy. Besides, they’re getting a Jack Seward creation—as good as the original. If you really don’t want to work with me, it’s fine, Blair. I don’t want you to do something you feel bad about. But I’ve gotten used to having you help me with my work. It’s like you’re my loyal Shadow, always right there behind me. You’re the best student I ever had.”
Blair would then feel guilty about questioning Jack after he’d done so much for him. And even though Jack never got mad at Blair and never seemed to tire of him, a part of Blair was always afraid that if he were too much of a burden, Jack would kick him out. Jack was one of the nicest guys he’d ever stayed with. And the time he’d spent with Jack was the longest he’d ever lived anywhere during his childhood. Blair never dared say the word ‘home’, but it had almost felt that way.
Blair rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed. The two-pence coin was Jack’s calling card. He was too careful to leave it out in full view, but proud enough of his skills to always leave one somewhere at the scene—usually slightly hidden. Jack always made such a big deal out of his French side of the family that leaving a British coin was his weird way of paying some small homage to his father’s side. Blair went to get the Interpol list of stolen paintings. He needed to check them out to make sure. He rubbed his aching temple. Why couldn’t Jack have stayed in Europe?
After several hours he had his answer. All the paintings could be traced back to Jack’s ancestor Genevieve St. Cyre. Jack had talked about her often, always bringing up the fact that she’d been a second cousin to the king. Over the years, his illustrious ancestors had lost their prestige and fortune, forcing them to sell some paintings to unscrupulous creditors. The few paintings that remained in Jack’s lifetime were stolen during the War. Jack remembered how heartbroken his mother had been to lose them.
Jack had earned a reputation as an honorable thief and fence in Paris when he was still a young man. But as he aged, his family’s lost treasures became an obsession with him. He often told Blair that someday he would stop working for others and concentrate on his dream of getting his family’s paintings back. From the Interpol list, Blair could see that he’d been slowly tracking them down for several years—stealing one or two a year, skipping a year or so, then stealing another or two. Jack had had a list that he would bring out and show Blair when he was in a thoughtful mood. It was a list of all the paintings he dreamed about bringing back to France someday. Blair had seen it so many times that he recognized most of the works from the Interpol list.
Blair got another piece of paper. If he thought about it hard enough, he was sure he could remember the rest of the paintings on Jack’s old list. After a bit of scribbling and erasing, he believed he had it. Then he checked on the Internet to see who owned them and where they were now, adding that information to his list. When he finished, he looked at it, shaking his head. At this rate, Jack should have all the paintings back in a few more years. Blair sighed. Jack wasn’t hurting anyone. Maybe he should just keep quiet. He shoved the paper into his pocket and leaned back against the sofa, wondering what to do.