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"Turn left in point nine miles."
The calm voice of her GPS system had FBI special agent Nicola Guthrie gripping the steering wheel of her car and peering through the windshield into thickly falling snow. Easing her foot off the gas, she narrowed her eyes to study what lay in the beams of her headlights.
Not much. She was finding it more and more difficult to distinguish the narrow mountain road from the treacherous ditches that bordered it on either side.
The storm had been steadily increasing in intensity ever since she'd left Denver at 6:00 p.m. And her little Volkswagen Beetle convertible was not known for its winter weather capabilities. The one-hour drive to the church of St. Francis had stretched into nearly three.
But it was going to be worth it. The moment that Father Mike Flynn had walked into her office and showed her the note, she'd gotten that tingling feeling deep inside of herthe same one that had guided every important decision she'd ever made. And it had never failed her.
Tonight, she had a good chance of finally identifying the art thief who'd been leading the FBI on a merry chase for the past three months. On each holiday since Thanksgiving, he'd relieved one of Denver's art collectors of a priceless painting. And if she unmasked him tonight, her father would finally have to relent and take her career choice seriously.
Nicola glanced at her speedometer. She could walk faster than this.
"Turn left in point five miles."
Not much longer. Her decision to join the FBI had not set well with either her father or her stepmother. Her father's tendency to be over-protective she could understand. Her mother had been an agent who'd worked with him, and she'd died in the line of duty when Nicola had been a toddler.
Her stepmother was a different kettle of fish. Marcia Thorne Guthrie had been born to wealth, and her ideas about a woman's role in society were slightly and almost lovably medieval. Marcia thought women should study art and literature, marry, run a lovely home and spread her largesse through the community by doing good works. And by throwing huge charity balls like the one Marcia gave every year at Thorne Mansion on Valentine's Day.
In fact, that's exactly where Nicola should be right nowat Thorne Mansion helping her stepmother make the final dessert selections for the ball.
The problem was Nicola didn't want to follow in her stepmother's footsteps. She wanted to follow in her father's. But she dearly loved both of her parentsenough to get a Masters in Fine Art degree before she'd secretly applied to the FBI. Throughout her life, her rebellions against her parents had ended in eventual victories, but they had always been hard-won. And actions had always spoken louder than words. Eventually, she'd win them over.
Which was why tonight was so important. If she could just catch herself a thief And if that thief turned out to be who she thought it was? Well, her father would have to give her bonus points for that because he thought Gabe Wilder was as innocent as a newborn babe.
"Turn left in point three miles."
"Where?" Nicola frowned into the swirling snow.
Then she saw itjust the outline of the church steeple. Ahead and to her left. She might have missed it if not for the headlights of a vehicle parked nearby. When a sudden break in the wind gave her a better look at the silhouette of the parked car, Nicola's pulse jumped.
It was an SUV and it looked familiar. Could it be ?
The tingling sensation moved through her. She'd felt the same way when Father Mike had visited her office and shown her the note announcing that the statue of St. Francis was going to be stolen tonight. Gabe Wilder might very well be here.
"Turn left in one hundred yards."
One step at a time, Nicola. First, you have to find the driveway. Then the thief.
During the long drive from the city, her practical side had been cautioning her that a semi-retired Franciscan priest like Father Mike didn't fit the profile of the previous wealthy and socially prominent victims of Denver's well-publicized art thief. However, during the twenty years he'd served as the director of the St. Francis Center for Boys, Father Mike had certainly rubbed elbows with the movers and shakers of Denver.
And the thief always delivered a note to his next target on the day he struck. Father Mike had received his note today. She'd read it.
I've always admired the statue of St. Francisever since I first saw it in the prayer garden at the St. Francis Center. I was so disappointed when you moved it to that isolated church. So, I've decided to take it off your hands. Enjoy Lincoln's Birthday.
The bragging tone and the specificity of the note were similar to the other ones in the file. The art piece and the holiday were always mentioned by name.
No one had expected the thief to make a move on Lincoln's Birthday, February 12. The press, the FBI and most of Denver's socially elite were expecting the thief to strike on Valentine's Day. A priceless Cezanne was going to be auctioned at the annual Valentine's Day Charity Ballthe one her stepmother was throwingand the theory was that the thief wouldn't be able to resist it.
No one had given any thought to the possibility that the thief might target the statue of St. Francis. Truth told, she hadn't thought of it either. She'd been certain her father was right, and the thief would go after the Cezanne.
The small marble statue currently residing on a side altar in St. Francis Church didn't have the monetary value of the artwork previously stolen. But there were those who would testify that it was priceless.
The statue of St. Francis had been donated to the Franciscan order in Denver years ago by an immigrant family from Assisi, Italy. They'd claimed it had been sculpted in the image of the saint himself, and that it possessed special powers to grant prayers. Since its arrival in Denver, the reputation of the statue had grown to legendary proportions. Even in its original home in the small prayer garden next to the St. Francis Center for Boys, the statue had attracted crowds. Many thought that paying a visit to the statue and saying a prayer was like having a direct line to God.
There were no documented miracles. Yet. But there were plenty of people who'd testified to the fact that the prayers they'd said to the statue had not only been answered but had changed their lives. People had fallen in love, marriages had been saved and babies had been born to supposedly infertile couples. And almost everyone testified to finding peace.
The article published in last Sunday's edition of the Denver Post had included several of the stories. They ranged from recovering lost jewelry to improvements in health and relationships. There was even a local congresswoman who claimed she owed her latest election victory to St. Francis.
Nicola remembered a time when she'd believed in the power of the statue herself. She'd said a prayer, one she'd desperately wanted to be granted. But St. Francis hadn't been listening that day. She hadn't wasted another prayer on him since. But she was definitely in the minority.
When the St. Francis Center for Boys had been torn down and replaced by upscale townhomes as part of the city's urban renewal program, Father Mike had received permission to relocate the statue to St. Francis Church. Since then the pilgrimages to pray to the statue had picked up in numbers.
Nearly half the money that had sustained the St. Francis Center had come from visitors who'd left donations in the small prayer garden where the statue had stood for fifteen years. Currently the three masses Father Mike commuted to say on Sunday were packed, and at least twenty percent of attendees were people from out of state who'd come to say a prayer.
What was the value of a piece of art that could answer your prayers? Nicola figured it might bring in a hefty price from some collector.
Evidently enough to have Father Mike hiring G. W. Securities, the premier firm in Denver, to protect it at its new location. That little known fact had also received quite a bit of play in the Denver Post article.
So if the statue of St. Francis was stolen, it would be the fourth piece of art snitched while under the protection of G. W. Securities. And to Nicola's way of thinking that made the company's owner, Gabe Wilder, a prime suspect. The fact that Gabe was the son of legendary thief Raphael Wilder added more weight to her suspicions.
"Turn left in twenty-five yards."
As Nicola peered into the snow, a blast of wind slammed into her car and the rear wheels fishtailed. Holding her breath, she eased her foot off the gas and kept her hands steady on the wheel. Her headlights shifted, briefly pinning the SUV, and Nicola's pulse jumped again. That was Gabe Wilder's car all right.
This time the tingling feeling racing through her was so strong that she nearly trembled. Then she felt her tires regain traction, and she shifted her attention to the road.
Her suspicion that Gabe Wilder had to be playing a key role in the thefts was the reason she'd spent the past few weeks tailing that SUV all over Denver during her off duty hours. Not that her surveillance had done her any good. Thanks to secure underground parking garages and the fact that he lived in an apartment above his office, she hadn't even been able to get a good look at the man himself.
Still, Nicola couldn't rid herself of her gut feeling that Gabe had to be connected to the thefts. Each time she'd tried to connect the dots in the case, he was the one who triggered that tingling sensation.
Beneath her, she felt her tires spin and slide to the right.
Focus, Nicola. When she peered through the windshield all she could see in the glare of her headlights was a whirling tunnel of snow. But the driveway to the church had to be close. The GPS lady was never wrong. She pressed her foot lightly against the brake. Surely that SUV would have left tracks. Any minute now she'd see the indentations in the snow. She slowed some more. But if she made a left turn without being sure, she'd end up in the ditch.
"Recalculating," her GPS system chirped.
"Damn." She'd missed the driveway, but at least she hadn't gone off the road. Not yet.
"Drive point four miles to Balfour Road."
"In your dreams," Nicola muttered as she eased her car to what she thought was the side of the road and stopped. That was when she saw the other vehicle. It was about fifteen yards ahead of her, just at the end of where her headlights reached. And it was tilting to one side in the ditch she'd been trying so hard to avoid.
Hoping that she'd left enough room for any possible travelers to get by her, she turned off the engine and then studied the other not-so-lucky car in her headlights. It was completely covered in snow, so it was impossible to figure the make or modelor even the color. It looked as if it had been abandoned. Just to make sure, she pressed the heel of her hand on her horn and gave three sharp blasts.
The church would be the closest refuge. She grabbed a flashlight out of her glove compartment, tucking it into the pocket of her coat. Then she turned up her collar and opened the driver's door. Fighting the wind, she climbed out.
Her first surprise was that the snow almost came up to her knees. The second was the force of the wind that pushed her back against the car. Nicola shoved her hair back and managed to get the door closed.
Reaching the church ASAP had to be her first priority. Gabe Wilder had left his headlights on, which made it easier for her to see through the darkness. Assuming that was Gabe Wilder's SUV, he had to be here because of the statue. And she couldn't discount the possibility that whoever had been driving that abandoned car was inside with him. If one of them was the thief, that didn't bode well for the other.
She shifted her gun from her holster to her coat pocket for easy access and moved forward.
He wasn't alone in the church.
Gabe had sensed that from the moment he'd found the door unlocked and the security alarm disabled. His conviction had grown steadily during the time it had taken him to walk quietly up the aisle to the side altar.
Since the storm had taken the power out, the place was as dark and cold as a crypt. The only illumination was provided by the three-tiered stand of votive lights in front of the altar. Nowadays, people didn't light real candles. Instead they donated money to purchase lights powered by lithium batteries. And they "burned" brightly enough for him to see that the statue of St. Francis was still there, enclosed in a shatterproof glass dome.
Inwardly, Gabe grinned. Turnabout was fair play. And very satisfying. The guy who'd had such smooth sailing so far must be feeling at least some of the frustration he'd been feeling for the past three months. There was no duplicate of the security system he'd created for the statue, not even a prototype out there, because he'd just invented it. It was very difficult to crack a safe or break through a security system when one had nothing to practice on.
Gabe started up the short flight of steps to the altar.
It was only as he reached the top that he saw itthe second statue sitting in the shadows at the foot of the altar. Crouching down, he examined it in the dim light, running his hands over it just to be sure. Then he welcomed the pump of adrenaline. It was a copy of the St. Francis, and that had to mean that his instincts had been right. The thief was still here.
In spite of the fact that all of his senses were now on full alert, Gabe was careful to keep the expression on his face perfectly neutral as he rose, narrowed his eyes and pretended to study the St. Francis that still stood beneath the glass dome.
The trap he'd set had worked. It was Father Mike who'd first suggested the idea that he might use the statue as bait, and the more Gabe had thought it over, the more he'd wanted to try it out. He'd called a friend at the Denver Post, and the resulting article in last Sunday's paper had not only highlighted the "priceless" reputation the statue had always had for answering prayers, but it had also mentioned that G. W. Securities had designed a premier alarm system for its protection. Evidently the combination of information had lured the thief into planning an attempt on the statue, just as he'd hoped.