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Victor Gage saw beneath the determined expression that Brooke Ramsey was hiding something. Although her red hair and splash of freckles lent her an impish quality, she was deadly serious at the moment.
She lifted her chin, her hands clasped together tightly. "Dr. Gage "
"Please call me Victor. I haven't been a practicing surgeon for four years." He still felt the familiar twinge when he said it out loud. Though he smiled gently at her, she did not respond. Something about her seemed familiar.
Her words were measured and calm, but there was a strong current of emotion throbbing underneath. "I want to hire you to find a treasure."
He raised an eyebrow. "Why me?"
She glanced around the richly appointed office. "Because Treasure Seekers is your agency." She crossed her legs, long and lean, a dancer's body. "You've found things for people before. Yours is the only business in California that does this kind of work, I've heard."
"True, but we're not really a public agency. We are very selective. The cases we've taken on were strictly through private recommendation. Friends of friends generally. I'm surprised you've even heard about us."
"You found that Vermeer six months ago. You're the only one who can help us," she said.
For Victor the thrill came in unearthing the treasure, not the publicity that inevitably followed, but the Vermeer had made international headlines in spite of his refusal to be interviewed. "Us?"
"Me. I meant me."
He cocked his head. "There are plenty of good detective agencies you could go with. Why am I the only one?"
She shifted in the chair. "You have connections to Bayside College. Your family funded some buildings there."
He hid his surprise. She'd done some homework, just as he would have before a meeting like this. "My father did, yes."
She leaned forward. "Then they'll allow you access."
Stephanie Gage slipped into the room and joined them. Victor introduced his sister. He watched Brooke's reaction to Stephanie's frank stare. Brooke's gaze lingered on the scar that crossed his sister's cheekbone. "Stephanie is working on another case right now. She's a computer genius among other things," Victor said. "My brother, Luca, is also a partner in this firm, but he's traveling at the moment."
Brooke eyed the two of them. "I can see the resemblance."
"Working with big brothers can have advantages and disadvantages," Stephanie said, with a wry look at Victor. "Have you got siblings, Ms. Ramsey?"
"Just a brother but he's away."
Stephanie gave Brooke a friendly nod before turning to Victor. "Luca is going to be tied up for another two days." Her gaze flicked to Brooke and back again. "He said not to get into any messes while he's gone, but I think he might have meant that more for me than you."
Victor laughed. "Ms. Ramsey was just telling me that she needs access to Bayside College, but she hasn't told me why."
Brooke breathed deeply before she answered. "There is a tunnel system under the college. It's been there since the place was built in the 1930s. I have reason to believe there's a treasure hidden there, which I need to recover quickly."
He leaned forward. "Let's stop dancing around the issue, Ms. Ramsey. What's the treasure?"
She raised her chin a fraction. "A painting that belongs to my father."
"What kind of painting?"
She stared at him, and he could see her weighing whether or not to trust him. "It's a Tarkenton."
He didn't answer for a moment. "A Tarkenton? As in a work by L. Tarkenton?"
Considering he'd recently read about a Tarkenton fetching twenty million dollars at auction, it would be a treasure indeed. "How did your father wind up with it?"
Her eyes flicked away from his. "That's not important. The point is, I know where it is."
He considered, pulse quickening at the enticing possibility. She could be wrong. Barring that, her father could have obtained the painting illegally. The possibility that a work of art was tucked in the tunnels under Bayside College was beyond far-fetched. "That's certainly quite a prize, but we don't work for the payoff. We're all well established. I think you need an art historian, not the three of us. We couldn't authenticate it, even if we found the piece."
"I am an art historian, unofficially anyway. Look, I know you're not in it for the payoff and neither am I. The painting belongs to my father and he's " She swallowed. "Never mind the details. My father had it sent to a professor at the college for examination, a man named Leo Colda, and it disappeared while in his possession."
Stephanie cocked her head. "Hang on. This rings a bell. Colda disappeared, too, didn't he?"
Brooke nodded. "He was last seen exiting the steam tunnels a month ago. I need to recover the painting. Time is running out. They're closing down the college next term for a massive remodel and if I don't find the painting soon it will be destroyed." She bit her lip and looked at her lap.
He watched her cheeks flush, the curse of a fair, freckle-faced redhead. He got the impression there was something much more than treasure at stake. After giving her a moment to recover herself, he asked, "Why don't you tell me the truth?"
She started. "I am telling you the truth."
"Not all of it. I can see in your face there's something you don't want me to know."
"I thought you were a heart surgeon, not a psychiatrist."
He laughed. "Good research on your part, but I'm also pretty skilled at reading faces." Truth was, he did not understand why he was so intrigued by this particular face, why he had the feeling he knew her. He kept his voice low and soft, but he could see she caught the intensity anyway. "So go ahead and tell me. You want to find the painting because it belongs to your father. What's the other reason that brought you here?"
She took a deep breath and straightened, looking somehow more vulnerable since she'd taken off her jacket. Vulnerable, small and scared. "I came to you because I believe you are the only people who can help me find that painting. And "
"And what? Let's have it, Ms. Ramsey."
"And I think someone is."
Her voice dropped so he had to lean closer to hear. "Following me."
Stephanie and Victor stared at Brooke, and she could feel her cheeks flame with embarrassment.
Victor's look was half suspicious, half amazed. He thought she was paranoid and, from the guarded expression on his sister's face, she agreed with him. Brooke was beginning to think it herself.
She waited in the outer office while they discussed the situation, even though she knew what the outcome would be. She thought about her brother. Tad's goofy smile played in her memory.
Chin up, he would remind her at every opportunity. Deep down he was a gentle soul, sweet and loving, and no one would ever convince her otherwise. She raised her head. She would find the Tarkenton and they'd have enough, more than enough to take care of Tad, to bring him home where he belonged. The door opened and she shot to her feet.
They emerged, their demeanor kind, professional and firm.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Ramsey," Stephanie said. Brooke was afraid to look her in the eye, so she focused on the second tiny gold hoop in Stephanie's ear, just above the lobe.
"We have several projects in progress right now and we don't feel we can give your case the attention it deserves."
Victor thanked her for coming and offered to help her find a private investigator. She declined.
As Brooke exited the outer office and headed for the elevator, she puzzled it over. Of course a successful doctor, already wealthy, who found treasures on a lark wouldn't be interested in her fanciful tale of a vanished Tarkenton painting. And he and his sister would definitely be put off by some paranoid woman who believed someone was following her.
As she waited for the elevator, the fright she'd experienced over the past few months seemed ridiculous. The lady she'd thought was tailing her, the phone calls. She swallowed. Was her mind going? Was it an early manifestation of the disease that was eating away at her father? A version of the terrible genetic error visited on Tad?
She shook it off and willed the elevator to hurry. The quiet of the hallway was oppressive. Didn't anyone else work on this floor of the San Francisco building? She longed to get home to Southern California where the fog did not lie like an oppressive blanket over the spring sunshine. Shivering, she realized with a start that she'd left her jacket in Gage's office.
She would rather lose it than go back and face the former doctor who already thought she was delusional. It had taken every ounce of courage to seek him out. She had not one bit of bravery left. A familiar sense of failure hung heavy on her shoulders. The elevator doors slid open and Brooke stepped forward until she saw the lady in the back, her hair a perfect black in spite of the fifty years or so written on her hardened face.
Brooke knew her; she'd seen her back home at the coffee shop, at the library.
Fear bubbled up inside and she backed away.
The woman stepped forward, a question in her eyes. She reached into a black slouch bag.
Brooke didn't wait. She whirled around and ran toward the end of the corridor, slamming through the stairwell door. Her feet moved faster than she'd thought possible as she plunged down three flights of stairs, heart thundering.
She did not know exactly why, but the woman had been stalking her, waiting to make her move. The cement corridor echoed her frantic run as she pelted down the stairs.
Get to the next floor. There will be people around. She can't hurt you with people around.
Brooke continued on her flight until she saw the door marked Floor Six just ahead. Only a half-dozen steps left to go when she heard the unmistakable sound. The door began to open.
For all his years as a surgeon and the personal trauma he'd survived, Victor thought he was immune to surprise, but he found himself taken aback at Brooke Ramsey's declaration that someone was following her. They'd exchanged a few words. She'd shaken his hand, her fingers cold and small in his grip, and practically run out the door, before he could even recommend someone else to help her. He was grateful for the chance to try to sort out his tangle of feelings as he returned to his desk and sank into the chair.
"What are you thinking?" Stephanie said, her hand on his shoulder.
"Me? Just wondering if we did the right thing refusing her case."
"If she's telling the truth, she needs the cops, not us. If she's not."
"Then she's crazy?"
Stephanie sighed. "I've wondered that about myself many a time."
He wanted to take her hand and squeeze it, to tell her that there were brighter days ahead, but he didn't think he could sound convincing and she wouldn't welcome the gesture anyway. He felt certain that all his brighter days were firmly in the past. Long gone, like his wife, Jennifer. He looked at the framed picture on his desk of a smiling Jen with her arms around him. Ironic that the afternoon she died she was wearing the same colorful scarf she'd been sporting the day he'd proposed.
Jen was gone; the joyful years were now buried deep and sealed over like an ugly, improperly healed wound. Now the only thing left was Treasure Seekers. It was the single reason he pulled himself out of bed some mornings. There were treasures still to be found in the world, the perfect job for his mixture of tenacity and curiosity. "Something about Ms. Ramsey is familiar. Why do I feel like I've seen her somewhere?"
Stephanie headed for the door. He recognized the determination in her perfect posture. "I'll go do a little digging and get back to you."
Victor stared after her. He replayed his last question to Brooke Ramsey in his mind, after he'd refused her case.
"What will you do now?" Why had he even said that? Why did he have the desire to keep her from leaving?
She'd turned her head, the light catching the determination in her profile and the streak of little-girl vulnerability. "I'm going to find another way to return my father's painting. Thank you for your time." Then she'd bolted out the door.
His eyes wandered back to the chair where she'd sat, looking at him with emotions that went far deeper than her words. It took him a moment to realize she'd left her jacket on the chair. He fingered the soft brown suede, remembering how it accentuated the almost luminous quality of her coppery hair. A light citrusy scent clung to the material.
He hurried to the door, calling to his secretary. "Trudy, I'm going to step out for a minute."
She nodded. "I've got a message for Ms. Ramsey. Did you get her cell phone number?"
"Yes," he said, frowning. "A message from whom?"
"Her sister, asking for a return call."
Just a brother, she'd said.
Without a word, he took off running toward the elevators.