Petros raised the painting to the intense light in his Paris flat. Out of its frame, he could see the paint that stretched to the edge of the canvas. He loved seeing what almost no one else had seen. That half an inch all the way around was his reward for pulling off another job. Well, that and the money it would fetch at auction. He just had to be careful about which auction. No where nearby. The police would be looking for any trace of a work of art that fine. A disappearance always sent waves through the community. He loved drifting through the art crowds at private shows, listening to people discuss his latest work. Their fear was a perfume. Their shifty eyes a comedy of gawking. He nodded and spoke of what a terrible time we lived in. God forbid something of theirs go missing.
He wore a simple magnifier, similar to those worn by jewelers, around his neck on a silver chain. Gold was so tacky. He brushed his brown hair out of his eyes and looked through it. Under focused scrutiny, the painting’s colors seemed muted, the brush strokes uneven.
“Oh, for the love of Christ.”
The art thief drew back, dropped the magnifier back to the middle of his chest. It was a fake. A fucking fake. Again. He pulled his phone from the breast pocket of his purple, crushed velvet blazer. “Hey, Mozer. It’s Tsoukalos.”
“You get it? I heard sirens. Thought maybe you were dead.”
“No. Just took my time getting back. Can’t be tailed, you know.”
“It’s a fake.”
“What do you mean it’s a fake?”
“Counterfeit, Mozer. A fucking reproduction. And not a very good one, to be honest.”
“I thought you were better than that.”
“Yeah. So did I.”
“Someone plant it?”
It hadn’t occurred to Petros that someone might have left it as bait, or worse yet a trap.
“Hello?” Mozer never waited long for a reply before jumping at the silence.
“Yeah…yeah. I gotta get rid of this thing. God. What if they bugged it or something.”
“Well, it’s not like you can go dumping it in the trash bin. You know they’re looking.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know. Shit.”
“You’re getting sloppy in your old age.”
“Fuck you right off the deep end, you old geezer. I’m 36.”
“Age is no measure for worth, and judging by your recent track record, you’re not long for this world.”
“Someone is just fucking with me. That’s all. Having a laugh. Put your feelers out. See which of your boys is on this one. I’ll put the piss out from them in a second when you find out who. I’ll get you your painting, too.”
The line was dead. Mozer wasn’t much for goodbyes. Petros rolled the canvas up and shoved the now empty frame against the wall, where it joined several more of all different styles. You could learn a lot about an artist or a collector by their choice of frame. The ones that hanged paintings in huge gilt frames that did anything but accentuate the artwork deserved to have their treasures stolen.
The rolled painting fit into the secret pocket in his sleeve with no problem. He wouldn’t normally roll a painting up unless he was desperate to escape a dicey situation, but for forgeries, reproductions, and that crap that gets sold at tourist shops, he gladly rolled a canvas in on itself so the offending image could never be seen by any eye whose sensibilities might be offended by such a thing.
Now. Where to get rid of it? He thought about throwing it in the Seine, but finding a place that wasn’t swarming with people who might see would be tough, as would not looking suspicious in a place with no one at all around. He decided to take a walk around town, hoping an opportunity might present itself.
The sun was setting over Paris, a beautiful time to be out. Petros took the stairs down to the ground level of his flat in the Latin Quarter. He loved the art and intellectualism that the area was known for. It evoked a romance that he found irresistible. Unfortunately for his current plans, there were eyes and ears all over the neighborhood that were all too eager to root themselves where they didn’t belong.
He set out on foot across the river and into the 1st arrondissement. This was one of the hearts of Paris’s culture. He wouldn’t live here—too much temptation everywhere he looked—but he loved being close enough to know he could slip in and out whenever he wanted. He walked by the Louvre, smiling to himself and at people who passed him. There would be no place to dump the painting here.
Down the street was the Arc. Having lived in the town and possessing no special interest in architecture in and of itself, he almost never paid it much attention. Today, though, it had a special glow that drew him near, that golden hour glow present in only the most beautiful of art. Like Edward Hopper in Paris. Before long, he was standing under the huge structure, watching the people pass. A commotion broke out from a nearby shop, and a man stormed out, tall and dark and classically sculpted. He was attractive, that was for sure. Petros’s eyes were drawn to the bloody stump at the end of his left arm. What the hell happened there?
“Doesn’t anyone around here speak English!”
Oh, God. He’s a tourist. Petros dropped his gaze to the ground, but kept his attention on the man.
“Hello! Are you all stupid? All I need is for a little bit of help. I know you hate me because I’m American, but I can’t speak French! I can’t speak Indian. I can’t speak Swahili.”
A woman walked by in a teal, calf-length trench coat, a beautiful thing. The man looked at her and smiled. “Hello.”
She kept walking. He followed her toward Petros. “Excuse me. I don’t speak French. But I need help. Could you please…”
She quickened her pace. He started to beg. “Please. I know you speak English. I know you have to!” He grabbed her arm and swung her around. “God, damnit! Just fucking talk to me! Why can’t a guy get some help?!”
A large, bearded man in khakis and a suede jacket tapped the one-handed man on the shoulder. He turned. The man socked him square in the jaw, laying him out on the pavement. Several people laughed. A few clapped. The man spoke a few words to the woman, asked her if she was harmed. Petros was glad he understood French, despite being Greek, himself.
Suddenly, he had an idea. He approached the tourist who had just been flattened. “Excuse me.”
The man sat up, blood trickling from his nose. Petros handed him a white handkerchief. “Here. You’re…umm…bleeding.”
He took the handkerchief and stood up, pressing it to his nose. “God. That was a fucking wallop.”
“We don’t really take kindly to our women being threatened.”
“We? Oh…but you speak English.”
“Yes. And so do you,” he chuckled, holding out his hand. “I’m Petros.”
“Adam,” the foreigner said, holding out his stump.
“Er…” Petros stared.
“Oh, God. I’m sorry. I’m not used to this yet. Hold on.” He tucked the bloody handkerchief under his arm, wiped his remaining hand on his pants, and offered it to Petros. “I’m Adam.”
“What happened to you?”
He took the now soiled rag from under his arm and pressed it to his nose again. “I just needed some help. That guy…just…stuck me.”
“I meant…” Petros trailed off. “Nevermind.”
“Oh. God. You mean the hand? Or…lack of.”
It’s really none of my business.
“No, it’s okay. I sort of got caught stealing a camel.”
“Where the hell did you find a camel around here?” Petros looked around him. The crowds had mostly dispersed when they realized there weren’t going to be any more punches thrown.
“I didn’t. It was…India…or Pakistan…or something. It’s a long story. Anyway…thanks for your help. I’m sorry I ruined your handkerchief.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Your English is very good.”
“It should be. I grew up there.”
“Oh. You’re an American?” Adam smiled around the bloody rag.
“No. I’m Greek. Petros Tsoukalos.”
“That IS Greek.”
“My parents moved us to America several years after I was born, and we lived there until I was twelve. Then…”
Adam waited for him to continue.
“At any rate, I’m sorry about your face. And your hand. It sounds like you’ve had a rather rough go of things.”
“Just don’t ever go looking for what makes you happy. God forbid.” Adam pulled the handkerchief away from his face and examined it.
Petros changed his mind about his plan. He liked this American man. “Listen, I know this is forward, but would you like to come back to my place.”
Adam paused. “For what?”
“I’m sure you could use a good meal, a bath, a—”
“God, a bath would be amazing. I still feel like I’m carrying around ten pounds of Pakistani sand in my ass.”
“Come on. I’ll take you there.”
The walk back seemed to take longer than the original trip, but Petros led the way and let Adam talk. Adam told him about the yearning to get out in the world, the trip he wanted to take, and the trip he got. He told about the weird red soup, the missing wallet, the camel. He told about the gut-wrenchingly horrible details surrounding the loss of his hand.
“I can’t believe they still do that. I thought that was just an old story, something that had faded away with an older way of life.”
“Apparently I stumbled upon the one village where they still practice it.”
“I wonder what they did with it.”
Petros examined Adam’s face, the dark stubble, the crags, his clear jawline. “Did with what?”
“My hand. Do you think they ran a chain through it and some kids are wearing it around, claiming it’s lucky?” He chuckled.
“Gross. You’re a sicko.”
Adam shrugged. “If I can’t laugh about it, I might as well take a dive into this river. What is this, the Thames?”
“No! It’s the Seine. God. You are an American.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The Thames is in Britain.”
“And in America, the Chicago River is in Chicago, the Ohio River is in Ohio, and the Mississippi River is…well…all over the place, but still. Why can’t you just call it what it is? The Paris River.”
“I’ll take that to the next meeting of our Paris naming counsel.”
They walked on in silence for a moment. Adam looked around at the shops and people they passed by. Petros looked at Adam. Adam looked in the windows of a small pastry shop. He noticed Petros looking at him in the reflection. Maybe he was just being foreign.
“I’d kill for a croissant and a coffee right about now,” Adam said, his stomach rumbling in response.
“Well, I’ll let you in to take a bath. You have a soak. I’ll go out and grab us something to eat.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Adam asked the question before he realized he was thinking it.
“You’re clearly in need of help.”
“But what’s in it for you?”
“So far, nothing but company, conversation. We value those things in Paris.”
Adam looked at the buildings. “This is kind of a nice neighborhood. You live here?”
Petros pulled out his keys and nodded. “Right here.”
Ada let out a low whistle. “Wow. What do you do that you live here?”
“Nothing of interest. I deal in valuable commodities.”
Petros laughed. “Oh, no. Nothing as exciting as that.”
They climbed the stairs, and Petros let Adam in. It had been a while since he’d had anyone else in his flat. He looked around with visitor’s eyes. It needed a good clean.
“Nice place!” said Adam, taking it all in. “You a painter?” He pointed at the nudes and landscapes on the walls, the frames leaning.
Petros pretended not to hear him and walked to the bathroom. Thankfully, his bathroom was immaculate. He wiped it down daily. Every man needed a refuge. “I’ll start the tub running.”
Adam slipped in behind him as hot water started to fill the claw-foot tub. “Okay. Thank you.”
Petros looked him over. “Give me your clothes.”
“You want me to undress? Here? With you?”
“Oh, you Americans and your aversion to nudity.”
“I’m not…averse. I just…”
Petros scoffed. It worked.
Adam shrugged and took his filthy shirt off. Petros tried not to look like he was looking at Adam as hard as he was. His body was beautiful. His chest rose and fell in all the right places, with a thatch of black hair near the center to anchor passing eyes. His arms were defined, but not hulking, with tufts of hair peeking out just enough to know it’s there. His stomach was flat, but not perfect.
Adam started to take his pants off, and Petros pretended he needed to do something in the living room, as much as he wanted to stay. Once out the door, he adjusted his bulge. Damn thing.
He headed to the bedroom, looking in the mirror on the bathroom wall to see Adam, back turned, removing his underpants. He called in, “I’m going to see if I have any clothes that might fit you.”
He heard the clink of a belt as Adam threw his clothes into the hallway. Petros picked them up. The were still warm, smelled of sweat and dirt and man. He threw them in a corner of his room and rummaged through the closet for something he didn’t love too much. He figured he wouldn’t be getting back whatever he gave Adam to wear.
The water stopped running and he heard Adam settle into the tub. His skin squeaked on the bottom of the porcelain. Petros found a pair of jeans, one of the few he owned, and last year’s military inspired button-down shirt. It wouldn’t be a perfect fit, but it would work. He slid the painting from his sleeve and tucked it in his closet, then walked back to the bathroom. The door was still open.
“Here,” he set the clothes on the sink ledge, glancing only once at what he’d been most curious about. Satisfied, he started to leave.
Adam sloshed in the tub. “Petros?”
Adam sloshed in the tub. “Petros?”
“Yes?” he turned around again, trying to look at Adam’s face.
“Thank you. For helping me.”
“Oh, don’t mention it. I would hope you would do the same for me if our roles were reversed.”
“You think more highly of me than I do. Now stop staring at me and go get me a croissant!” He smiled as Petros blossomed into a beet and left the room.
After a few more minutes, the door closed. Adam relaxed. What the hell had he gotten himself into now? Whatever it was, it beat the hell out of losing a hand to the desert. He wondered what Gwynne was up to, then banished her from his head. The last thing he needed was a reminder of what he used to have. He started to unwrap the bandage on his stump. This was going to hurt.