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'Open it up.'
It had taken the better part of two days to reach this moment. Khalis Tannous stood back as the two highly skilled engineers he'd employed to open his father's steel vault finally eased the door off its hinges. They had used all their knowledge and skill trying to unlock the thing, but his father was too paranoid and the security too advanced. In the end they'd had to use the newest laser technology to cut straight through the steel.
Khalis had no idea what lay inside this vault; he hadn't even known the vault had existed, on the lowest floor of the compound on his father's private island. He'd already been through the rest of the facility and found enough evidence to see his father put in prison for life, if he were still alive.
'It's dark,' one of the engineers said. They'd propped the sawn-off door against a wall and the opening to the vault was black and formless.
Khalis gave a grim smile. 'Somehow I doubt there are windows in there.' What was in there he couldn't even guess. Treasure or trouble? His father had had a penchant for both. 'Give me a torch,' he said, and one was passed into his hand.
He flicked it on, took a step towards the darkness. He could feel his hand slick on the torch, his heart beating far too hard. He was scared, which annoyed him, but then he knew enough about his father to brace himself for yet another tragic testament to the man's power and cruelty.
Another step, and the darkness enveloped him like velvet. He felt a thick carpet under his feet, breathed in the surprising scents of wood and furniture polish, and felt a flicker of reliefand curiosity. He lifted the torch and shone it around the vault. It was a surprisingly large space and fashioned like a gentleman's study, with elegant sofas and chairs, even a drinks table.
Yet somehow Khalis didn't think his father came down to a sealed underground vault just to relax with a tumbler of his best single malt. He saw a switch on the wall and flicked it on, bathing the room in electric light. His torch lay forgotten in his hand as he slowly turned in a circle, gazing first at the furniture and then at the walls.
And what they held frame after frame, canvas after canvas. Some he recognised, others he didn't but he could guess. Khalis gazed at them all, felt a heaviness settle on him like a shroud. Yet another complication. Another testament to his father's many illegal activities.
'Mr Tannous?' one of the engineers asked uneasily from the outside hallway. Khalis knew his silence had gone on too long.
'It's fine,' he called back, even though it wasn't fine at all. It was amazing and terrible. He stepped further into the room and saw another wood-panelled door in the back. With a flicker of foreboding, he went to it. It opened easily and he entered another smaller room. Only two paintings were in this tiny chamber, two paintings that made Khalis squint and step closer. If they were what he thought they were
'Khalis?' his assistant, Eric, called, and Khalis came out of the little room and closed the door. He switched off the light and stepped out of the vault. The two engineers and Eric all waited, their expressions both curious and concerned.
'Leave it,' he told the engineers, who had propped the enormous steel door against the wall. He felt the beginnings of a headache and gave a brisk nod. 'I'll deal with all this later.' no one asked any questions, which was good since he had no intention of spreading the news of what was in that vault. He didn't yet trust the skeleton staff left on the compound since his father's death, all of them now in his employ. Anyone who had worked for his father had to be either desperate or completely without scruples. Neither option inspired trust. He nodded towards the engineers. 'You can go now. The helicopter will take you to Taormina.'
They nodded, and after Khalis disarmed the security system everyone headed into the lift that led to the floors above ground. Khalis felt tension snap through his body, but then he'd been tense for a week, ever since he'd left San Francisco for this godforsaken island, when he'd learned his father and brother had both died in a helicopter crash.
He hadn't seen either of them in fifteen years, hadn't had anything to do with Tannous Enterprises, his father's dynastic business empire. It was huge, powerful and corrupt to its core and it was now in Khalis's possession. Considering his father had disowned him quite publicly when he'd walked away from it all at the age of twenty-one, his inheritance had come as a bit of a surprise.
Back in his father's office, which he'd now taken for his own, he let out a long, slow breath and raked his hands through his hair as he considered that vault. He'd spent the last week trying to familiarise himself with his father's many assets, and then attempt to determine just how illegal they were. The vault and its contents was yet another complication in this sprawling mess.
Outside, the Mediterranean Sea sparkled jewel-bright under a lemon sun, but the island felt far from a paradise to Khalis. It had been his childhood home, but it now felt like a prison. It wasn't the high walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass that entrapped him, but his memories. The disillusionment and despair he'd felt corroding his own soul, forcing him to leave. If he closed his eyes, he could picture Jamilah on the beach, her dark hair whipping around her face as she watched him leave for the last time, her aching heart reflected in her dark eyes.
Don't leave me here, Khalis.
I'll come back. I'll come back and save you from this place, Jamilah. I promise.
He pushed the memory away, as he had been doing for the last fifteen years. Don't look back. Don't regret or even remember. He'd made the only choice he could; he just hadn't foreseen the consequences.
Eric shut the door and waited for instructions. In his board shorts and T-shirt, he looked every inch the California beach bum, even here on Alhaja. His relaxed outfit and attitude hid a razor-sharp mind and an expertise in computers that rivalled Khalis's own.
'We need to fly an art appraiser out here as soon as possible,' Khalis said. 'Only the best, preferably someone with a specialisation in Renaissance paintings.'
Eric raised his eyebrows, looking both intrigued and impressed. 'What are you saying? The vault had paintings?'
'Yes. A lot of paintings. Paintings I think could be worth millions.' He sank into the chair behind his father's desk, gazed unseeingly at the list of assets he'd been going through. Real estate, technology, finance, politics. Tannous Enterprises had a dirty finger in every pie. How, Khalis wondered, not for the first time, did you take the reins of a company that was more feared than revered, and turn it into something honest? Something good?
You couldn't. He didn't even want to.
'Khalis?' Eric prompted.
'Contact an appraiser, fly him out here. Discreetly.'
'No problem. What are you going to do with the paintings once they're appraised?'
Khalis smiled grimly. 'Get rid of them.' He didn't want anything of his father's, and certainly not some priceless artwork that was undoubtedly stolen. 'And inform the law once we know what we're dealing with,' he added. 'Before we have Interpol crawling all over this place.'
Eric whistled softly. 'This is one hell of a mess, isn't it?'
Khalis pulled a sheaf of papers towards him. 'That,' he told his assistant and best friend, 'is a complete understatement.'
'I'll get on to the appraiser.'
'Good. The sooner the betterthat open vault presents too much risk.'
'You don't actually think someone is going to steal something?' Eric asked, eyebrows raised. 'Where would they go?'
Khalis shrugged. 'People can be sly and deceptive. And I don't trust anyone.'
Eric gazed at him for a moment, his blue eyes narrowed shrewdly. 'This place really did a number on you, didn't it?'
Khalis just shrugged again. 'It was home,' he said, and turned back to his work. A few seconds later he heard the door click shut.
'Special project for La Gioconda.'
'So amusing,' Grace Turner said dryly. She swivelled in her chair to glance at David Sparling, her colleague at Axis Art Insurers and one of the world's top experts on Picasso forgeries. 'What is it?' she asked as he dangled a piece of paper in front of her eyes. She refused to attempt to snatch it. She smiled coolly instead, eyebrows raised.
'Ah, there's the smile,' David said, grinning himself. Grace had been dubbed La Giocondathe Mona Lisawhen she'd first started at Axis, both for her cool smile and her expertise in Renaissance art. 'Urgent request came in to appraise a private collection. They want a specialist in Renaissance.'
'Really?' Her curiosity was piqued in spite of her determination to remain unmoved, or at least appear so.
'Really,' David said. He dangled the paper a bit closer. 'Aren't you just a teeny bit curious, Grace?'
Grace swivelled back to her computer and stared at the appraisal she'd been working on for a client's seventeenth century copy of a Caravaggio. It was good, but not that good. It wouldn't sell for as much as he'd hoped. 'No.'
David chuckled. 'Even when I tell you they'll fly the appraiser out to some private island in the Mediterranean, all expenses paid?'
'Naturally.' Private collections couldn't be moved easily. And most people were very private about their art. She paused, her fingers hovering over the keys of her computer. 'Do you know the collector?' There were only a handful of people in the entire world who owned significant collections of Renaissance paintings of real value, and most of them were extremely discreet so discreet they didn't want appraisers or insurers looking in and seeing just what kind of art they had on their walls.
David shook his head. 'Too top secret for me. The boss wants to see you about it ASAP.'
'Why didn't you tell me?' she asked, and David just grinned. Pressing her lips together, she grabbed the printout he'd been teasing her with and strode towards the office of Michel Latour, the CEO of Axis Art Insurers, her father's oldest friend and one of the most powerful men in the art world.
'You wanted to see me?'
Michel turned from the window that overlooked the Rue St Honore in the 1st arrondissement of Paris. 'Close the door.' Grace obeyed and waited. 'You received the message?'
'A private collection with significant art from the Renaissance period to be appraised.' She shook her head slowly. 'I can think of less than half a dozen collectors who fit that description.'
'This is different.'
Michel gave her a thin-lipped smile. 'Tannous.'
'Tannous?' She stared at him, disbelieving, her jaw dropping before she thought to snap it shut. 'Balkri Tannous?' Immoralor perhaps amoralbusinessman, and thought to be an obsessive art collector. No one knew what his art collection contained, or if it even existed. No one had ever seen it or even spoke of it. And yet the rumours flew every time a museum experienced a theft: a Klimt disappeared from a gallery in Boston, a Monet from the Louvre. Shocking, inexplicable, and yet the name Tannous was always darkly whispered around such heists. 'Wait,' Grace said slowly. 'Isn't he dead?'
'He died last week in a helicopter crash,' Michel confirmed. 'Suspicious, apparently. His son is making the enquiry.'
'I thought his son died in the crash.' 'His other son.'
Grace was silent. She had not known there was another son. 'Do you think he wants to sell the collection?' she finally asked.
'I'm not sure what he wants.' Michel moved to his desk, where a file folder lay open. He flipped through a few papers; Grace saw some scrawled notes about various heists. Tannous suspected behind every one, though no one could prove it.
'If he wanted to sell on the black market, he wouldn't have come to us.' There were plenty of shady appraisers who dealt in stolen goods and Axis was most assuredly not one of them.
'No,' Michel agreed thoughtfully. 'I do not think he intends to sell the collection on the black market.'
'You think he's going to donate it?' Grace heard the disbelief in her voice. 'The whole collection could be worth millions. Maybe even a billion dollars.'
'I don't think he needs money.'
'It doesn't have to be about need.' Michel just cocked his head, his lips curving in a half-smile. 'Who is he? I didn't even know Tannous had a second son.'
'You wouldn't. He left the Tannous fold when he was only twenty-one, after graduating from Cambridge with a First in mathematics. Started his own IT business in the States, and never looked back.'
'And his business in the U.S.? It's legitimate?'
'It appears to be.' He paused. 'The request is fairly urgent. He wishes the collection to be dealt with as soon as possible.'
'I can certainly appreciate why an honest businessman would want to legally off-load a whole lot of stolen art quite quickly.' 'If he is honest.'
Michel shook his head, although there was a flicker of sympathy in his shrewd grey eyes. 'Cynicism doesn't suit you, Grace.'
'Neither did innocence.' She turned away, her mind roiling from Michel's revelations.
'You know you want to see what's in that vault,' Michel said softly.
Grace didn't answer for a moment. She couldn't deny the fact that she was curious, but she'd experienced and suffered too much not to hesitate. Resist. Temptation came in too many forms. 'He could just turn it all over to the police.'
'He might do so, after it's been appraised.'
'If it's a large collection, an appraisal could take months.'
'A proper one,' Michel agreed. 'But I believe he simply wants an experienced eye cast over the collection. It will have to be moved eventually.'
She shook her head. 'I don't like it. You don't know anything about this man.'
'I trust him,' Michel said simply. 'And I trust the fact that he went to the most legitimate source he could for appraisal.'
Grace said nothing. She didn't trust this Tannous man; of course she didn't. She didn't trust men full stop, and especially not wealthy and possibly corrupt tycoons. 'In any case,' Michel continued in that same mild tone, 'he wants the appraiser to fly to Alhaja Islandtonight.'
'Tonight?' Grace stared at her boss, mentor and onetime saviour. 'Why the rush?'
'Why not? I told you, holding onto all that art has to be an unappealing prospect. People are easily tempted.'
'I know,' Grace said softly, and regret flashed briefly in Michel's eyes. 'I didn't mean'
'I know,' she said again, then shook her head. That brief flare of curiosity died out by decision. 'It's not something I can be involved with, Michel.' She took a deep breath, felt it sear her lungs. 'You know how careful I have to be.'
His eyes narrowed, mouth thinning. 'How long are you going to live your life enslaved to that?'
'As long as I have to.' She turned away, not wanting Michel to see her expression, the pain she still couldn't hide, not even after four years. She was known by her colleagues to be cool, emotionless even, but it was no more than a carefully managed mask. Just thinking about Katerina made tears rise to her eyes and her soul twist inside her.