And so it began …
A cool March morning did not deter the handful of worshipers gathering in a small waterfront bar in Wilmington, North Carolina. The unlikely location, chosen by a group of enterprising Methodists was only a temporary stop on the way to establishing a new church for the seacoast city. Jackson Forbes stood just inside the doorway and studied the forty or so souls gathered to listen to the affable young Methodist pastor. A cup of coffee dangled from his fingertips. The bar owner leaned on a table in the back; obviously thinking he may have made a mistake allowing the experimental church to use his establishment. But, as promised, the pastor encouraged the attendees to stay for lunch at the bar. Jackson followed the order of worship without moving far from his original location. He was looking for LeSeaun Adams, his contact for clandestine works along the shipping section of the seacoast city. LeSeaun said he was employed as a dishwasher at Hell’s Kitchen bar, site of the unlikely church service. The worship service ended without any appearance of LeSeaun, so Jackson deposited his coffee cup in the waiting tray and stepped out of the bar into the pre-noontime sunshine and looked toward the river.
A week earlier Jackson Forbes was sitting in his farmhouse in Northern Missouri, when his phone rang.
Jackson Forbes looked the part of his forty years of hard labor and strong work ethic growing up and in the U.S. Army; and now chasing art fraud around the world; he currently referred to himself as a retired retrieval specialist in the Fraud Division of a major New York based insurance company. He and his wife Anita lived near a small community in Harrison County Missouri.
“That you Forbes? About time you answered the phone.” It was the voice of Dwayne Musgrove, Jackson’s former, and now occasional, employer, and director of the Fraud Division of the Kansas City offices of the insurance company. Jackson had worked with Musgrove for several years before retiring. Jackson’s opinion of the man was that he was six-foot rotund pressure cooker ready to explode.
Jackson, and his wife Anita, occasionally accepted special requests to serve as contract property tracers. “Yeah, Dwayne, I usually don’t answer the phone on Sunday. Day of rest, remember. Besides, Anita and I are about to head to church, she’s going to Mass in Bethany, so I have to get a move along.”
Musgrove ignored Jackson’s complaint. “The Nelson lost the Geneva Bible. Well, it didn’t arrive, but it left London and was checked in at Kennedy and re-checked when it was put on a guarded flight to Kansas City. However, the bible or its case didn’t make it here. It was diverted to Wilmington, North Carolina. Wherever the H that is.”
Jackson laughed. “You can get a facsimile of the Geneva bible at Amazon for twenty bucks or go to a used bookstore and get a really dusty copy to put in your bookcase. I suppose you’re going to tell me this is the original or something like that. Why don’t you go to the antique store and pick one up.”
“I told them to buy one and put it in the original’s place. For some reason the curators saw no humor. The original handwritten Bible it seems, could auction on the open market for about $750 million American. We hold the insurance note on this. I’ll send all the information to you by courier but you need to be in North Carolina by Wednesday.”
Jackson cleared his throat. “First of all I never said I would do it. And secondly I wouldn’t simply assume that Anita would be interested.”
“Assume what.” Jackson’s wife Anita leaned over his shoulder. Her warm slender frame pressed against Jackson’s body.
Jackson pressed the speaker button on the phone and turned to the amplified device. He put his arm around his wife such that they both faced the phone. “Dwayne, Anita is here with me. Explain to her what you were saying.”
“Good morning Anita.” Dwayne’s voice echoed in the telephone.
Anita Forbes, a Taiwanese American, wife of Jackson Forbes, was a renowned Archiver, formerly assigned to the Preservation Section of the Catholic Diocese in Kansas City, Missouri. She and Jackson met and were married after she assisted in the apprehension of thieves in an insurance scam, involving the French Government and the Catholic Church.
“Good morning to you Dwayne, why aren’t you in church?”
“I have a job for both of you. The Nelson lost the 1540 original volume of the Geneva Bible; actually it never arrived. It’s worth three quarters a billion dollars on the legit open market. Stolen, it’s assumed and indications are, it was diverted to Wilmington, North Carolina. This info comes from a snitch who was involved in the original transfer at Kennedy. He was arrested later during a sting with the Art theft business. We think that in Wilmington it will likely be put on a boat and head somewhere miles off shore ’to who knows where - for a black market auction. Word on the street is it’s available for anybody ready with eight figures cash and willing to put it up today.”
Jackson interrupted. “And what’s the fee?”
“Quarter per cent less expenses. But, we’ll foot some of the operation for both of you, internally.”
Anita hipped Jackson and pointed to her cell phone where she had quickly figured the fee. “Uh, almost two mil for the find?”
Jackson could imagine Dwayne’s face burning.
“If you want to be technical, it’s one point eight, less expenses not already covered by the company.” Dwayne spat out the numbers. “And, the book delivered. If I send in a team you forfeit half the fee.”
“We’ll do it,” announced an excited Anita.
Jackson squeezed his wife’s shoulders. “What’s the catch Dwayne?”
“You have to deliver it to the Nelson by May 1. The show is due to open on the third.” Musgrove’s voice reverberated on the date. “Fail to do that and I make half the expenses a loan and the fee is nil.”
Jackson grumbled. “I guess we’ll take the contract.”
“Good. Anita, I know you will need preservation gear, the equipment from the last case is in storage, we’ll send it. No doubt the thieves broke the bible out of its original protective shell. When you get it, the bible, it will have to be preserved in some way. I understand the air and old paper don’t mix.”
“That’s right Dwayne, it only takes a few days before the paper on that four hundred year old book turns to dust. But, you send the equipment and I’ll pack what I can.”
“You know where to find me. Oh, I just remembered. I was told that the New York Company owns some condos on Wrightsville beach, near Wilmington. You’ll be staying in one of those, save us paying a lease; all that information will be in the package. A local insurance guy will meet you at the airport. Oh, your registration at the condo is active, like you’re already there, so there won’t be hassle getting in, the association management company knows you are there, but don’t be surprised if they come by to check. Jackson, be polite I’m told that the management manager is a fox.”
“I’m married to a fox.”
“The sexist chatter needs to stop, after all I’m listening.”
Jackson squeezed Anita. “Cool. Who are your delivery boys now?”
“Bobbsey Twins, you’ll love em’.”
Jackson got ready to disconnect. “Anything else Anita?”
“We’ll probably call after we get the info.” Anita stroked the back of Jackson’s hair. “I was really hoping for Paris or Rome, Dwayne.”
“I’ve got another job in Topeka if you’d rather.” Dwayne laughed. “It’s really lovely in Kansas in March, we’ve got a train carload of Styrofoam that disappeared. Personally, I think it got rerouted in the train yard in Chicago. So, would you rather the Styrofoam? I think the recovery fee is about ten grand and a free tour of the Topeka train yard.”
Anita sighed, “You know how to win a girl’s heart Dwayne.”
“I try.” Dwayne’s voice crackled on the tiny speakerphone.
“Okay, Dwayne we’ll wait for the information.” Jackson disconnected and turned to Anita. “I guess we need to inform the family at lunch. Jeanie will have a cow.” Jeanie was Jackson’s sister-n-law. Technically, Jackson and Anita lived in a farmhouse on Jackson’s former in-laws property.
Monday morning at 7:30 two men knocked on Jackson and Anita’s door.
Jackson as usual tucked his Glock in his waistband and answered the door. He pulled the door to its safety chain.
“Bob and Rob, here,” two young men in gray suits and black wool topcoats, stood on his porch; one holding up an ID card. Each looked like they had just stepped into the personnel interview room for the first time. “Mr. Forbes, we’re from the company.”
“Okay,” Jackson slid the safety chain and opened the door. “Come on in.”
One of the young men was carrying a satchel, which he sat on the table near the door. “Everything Mr. Musgrove authorized is in the case. Including two plane tickets and four grand in cash. There’s even a folder with a bunch of credit cards. You have your own gun permits, but you’ll need to re-file in North Carolina. The forms are in the satchel and as much as possible already filled out, you mainly just need to sign. North Carolina recognizes your Conceal and Carry permits. And, you know the procedure for shipping your weapons.”
Jackson smirked. “Yeah, air freight. How long have you two been in the fraud department?”
“Two weeks sir.”
“Yes, sir. We have worked in every department since joining the company in June.”
Jackson leaned on the back of the couch laughing. “Sorry guys I was just imagining you two in jail together.”
Anita walked up the hallway.
Jackson noticed the glance of the two young men as Anita approached. She was tall and attractive plus Taiwanese features and probably looked like an oxymoron in the tiny farmhouse in northern Missouri.
“Jackson Forbes, be nice to these guys, they’re doing their job. Just because the last two,” she winked at Jackson, “are sitting in a jail in Paris, doesn’t mean these two will fall into the same trap.”
One of the young men stuttered. “Ma’am, what happened?”
Jackson stood up and attempted to be serious. “They tried to steal the artwork we were sent to recover.”
“No sir, we wouldn’t do anything like that.” One of the young men grabbed the door handle.
Jackson chuckled. “So if you had ten and a half million dollars in your hand and nobody was watching you wouldn’t think about it? Just walking away to sit on an island somewhere.”
The mouths of both young men dropped open.
“That’s what we do,” Anita brushed her hair back with her hand. “We recover insured items, often millions of dollars worth of artwork pieces, and return them to owners, thus saving the company paying out insurance claims. Your predecessors decided to run off with millions. So, be aware.”
Both men nodded and backed out the door.
Anita pushed the door closed and looked at Jackson. “We’re shameful.”
“Absolutely.” Jackson watched the green Cadillac pull out of the drive. “They got to drive the caddy. Stu and Mike used to come up here in a fancy Porsche.” Stu and Mike were the two associates Jackson had referred to earlier. Both were now in jail in France.
Wednesday morning Jackson and Anita were hurrying around the house to get packed and close up the property.
“Okay, Jackson, I packed everything but your toiletries, that’s up to you. I left space in your suitcase.”
“No problem. Our flight leaves at 3:30, so we need to be there by 1:30, because of checking in your equipment we probably should have shipped it with the weapons. Anyway, all this means we need to leave here by noon, and stop in Cameron, it’s halfway, for a short lunch.” Jackson figured in his head as he walked down the hallway and looked out the back window. “Anita, we need to build-on or something. I keep running into myself.”
Anita called after him, “I’ve been telling you that for months. With my piano in the living room there’s hardly room to walk.”
“Exactly. When we get back, let’s consult the family about an addition.”
Anita pulled the tickets out of the satchel. I’m looking at the times on the tickets and we don’t get to North Carolina till ten tonight. When can we get in the condo?”
“Officially, we are already there. As Dwayne said, an agent in Wilmington has the keys. We’ll probably meet him or her tomorrow they’re supposed to meet us at the airport. But, for us, I was able to make reservations at the Holiday Inn for tonight and tomorrow. It’s a straight shot on the highway according to the map. Besides, I used to know the manager there. You’ll love the parrots and the hotel.”
“Jackson, you know people everywhere. Is there a bird story in there somewhere?”
“Not really. The hotel has parrots. And, it helps to know people.” Jackson carried his suitcase to the front door. “Let’s load up.”
By 10:30 that night they had arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina. As they walked out of the passenger area a blue suited older man carrying a sign was pacing in the baggage claim area. The sign read “Forbes.”
Jackson walked up to the man. “I’m Jackson Forbes.”
“Oh good,” the man said. Oh, I’m Fred Smith.” He stuck out his hand to Jackson. “I run the local insurance office here, life, auto, fire, wind, home, and boat.”
“Nice to meet you Fred.”
“Home office told me to bring you a car, so I had one of the standard issue cleaned up and brought one out. Actually it’s one I often drive. It’s fully loaded, XM, OnStar, GPS, the works; it’s parked by the curb with the trunk up.”
“I’ll help you with your stuff then take off unless you need me for anything. I’ve got Arlie, one of our agents, waiting to pick me up. He’s standing by now. Did you come out of New York?”
Jackson chuckled. “No, out of Kansas City, but its all the same company.” He patted Fred on the shoulder as Anita walked up. “And this is my wife Anita, she’s an archive specialist, working with me here.”
“Good evening,” said Anita.
Fred offered her his hand, though he paused apparently not expecting the tall attractive woman to be a property tracer.
“Okay, let’s gather the gear.” Jackson wheeled a baggage cart up to the luggage carousel and he and Fred helped Anita with her cases and boxes. Within a few minutes they walked out to the car. Fred led the way to the curb.
“This is it,” motioned Fred at the car. “Kinda plain but it runs pretty good. Like I said, I had it detailed for you.”
“Thanks Fred, it will be fine.” Anita lifted a case and put it in the trunk.
“That’s a lot of stuff ma’am.” Fred pointed to the boxes.
“Archival equipment,” she explained. “Helps when identifying really old stuff and also some preservation materials.”
Fred nodded. “Oh, I wondered.” They loaded the equipment into the trunk and backseat of the company car, and then Fred shook hands again with Jackson and Anita. “We’ll probably see you before you leave again. Oh, I almost forgot, here’re the keys to the condo unit.” He reached in his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope which he handed to Jackson. “They arrived Fed Ex this morning. And, yesterday I delivered a half dozen boxes to the condo unit – I guess you were expecting them.”
“Yup, thanks.” Jackson took the envelope of keys. “Maybe lets do lunch or something.” Anita accepted the open car door and slid in. “Thanks for your help.”
“Okay, if you have your bags, you’re set.” Fred held onto the door. “Return the car here to the airport and leave the key under the floor mat. Call me, and I’ll pick it up. It’ll be easy to find in this small airport.” Fred handed Jackson another business card and closed Anita’s door.
Jackson and Anita waved to Fred and his companion as the two men departed.
“Now to find the Holiday Inn, just follow Highway 74 I think. Pull up a map on the GPS.”
Anita adjusted her seatbelt and played with the automobile GPS. “Got it.”
The next morning they woke in the luxury beach hotel and had breakfast in the dining room.
“Oh, Jackson, it’s beautiful here. This is the scenery I would love to see every morning.”
“You haven’t seen anything yet. Let’s find the condo, deposit our stuff and then get a lay of the area. I was here for a meeting in the 90s, but Wilmington has really grown and changed since.”
They checked out of the hotel and with help were able to find their condo tucked on the Sound side of the island. “Well, it isn’t ocean view, but its spacious and the view is magnificent. At least out this window, the other window looks at the parking lot.” Anita pulled back the curtains.
On the kitchen table were several boxes and reams of information.
“Oh, lookie, toys.” Jackson handed Anita a Springfield 9mm and a box of ammunition. And then found a box with a Glock and another box of ammunition. Also, copies of two, already filed, permit applications were on the table. “I really hope we don’t need these.”
Anita tucked hers in her shoulder bag purse. But, Jackson left his weapon in the box.
“The company sent in a copy of your passport with your application, mine too. All though there is reciprocity until your permit to carry is approved, and we get an authorization letter, you’re technically illegal here.” Jackson pointed to Anita’s purse.
Anita fingered the weapon. “A girl must do diligence no matter the cost.”
“Yeah, I’ll bail you out.”
He poked around in the closets in both bedrooms. I guess if I have to climb or dive I’ll need to rent equipment. The place is largely empty except for bedding, towels and stuff.”
“The fridge is empty too, well does a box of baking soda count? I guess we need a grocery run.”
The rest of the week they alternated between chilly walks on the beach and sitting in the condo doing research on the Geneva Bible, tracking the shipment and telephone interviews with shipping personnel and walking into waterfront dives in Wilmington, dropping bartenders hints about a hot bible.
Saturday evening Jackson sat on the couch watching a ball game and sipping on a cold beer. Anita was in the kitchen chopping lettuce and preparing a chef’s salad, when there was a knock on the door.
“Jackson. Door.” Anita barked. “Who knows we’re here?”
Jackson tucked the Glock in his waistband and cracked open the door. “Yeah?”
“Hey, I’m LeSeaun Adams, and I know what you’re looking for, and I’ve seen it.”
Jackson looked over the gangly dark skinned man and opened the door. If the man was hiding a weapon it was concealed under his skin, because the tight muscle shirt and baggy pants showed no metallic bulges. A multi colored beret topped his mass of hair.
“I’m clean man. I figure y’all are investigators of some sort. Listen, I’m working NARC for the Feds, but you don’t know that, okay. Anyway, this book y’all are looking for is really old right? Well, some dudes and homies was talking about this last night, and like I said to myself what’s going down with this bible. Well, I happened to be moving some boxes for a crazy dude, when this big ugly, and I mean really big mean looking bro, drops this box and the lid came off. So, I looked in the box there on the floor; just a dusty old book in a plastic wrap. The man put the lid back on the box and flock of white guys and two bros put it on a truck. Well, I remembered that you was in the bar the other day and asked the bartender at Hell’s Kitchen, that’s where I work see, and if he ever heard of a hot bible? But, he says like there was dude looking for the one who was asking questions. And, my friend Eddie says he knows who you are cause you drive’n his insurance guy’s boat. Now Eddie knows his rides cause ya see he did some time for boosting a couple of caddies and a mustang and like he was just drivin’m for this dude who liked to cut up cars but Eddie does the time and dude walks. Hardly fair right?”
Jackson interrupted. “Uh, Mo, is there a point to all this?”
“Like I was say’n, Eddie and I were crusin’ down Eastwood, and Eddie, say lookie there, that’s the dude who been talked to bar jocks.”
“So, I put two and two together, and now I’m here.”
Jackson glanced at Anita and shrugged. “Yeah, we heard about it too.”
“I heard some guys say they want ten million dollars for the book.” LeSeaun smiled. “Ain’t nothing worth that much. Especially some nasty ol book, what’s in it? Gold or something?”
Jackson elected not to tell LeSeaun more, but said, “Yeah, that’s a lot of money.”
Anita approached. “So how’d you find us here.”
Mo smiled a broad toothy smile. “Easy, ma’am, like, me an my pal Eddie, I told you about Eddie, like we followed you from the grocery store.” LeSeaun turned back to Jackson. “Meet me at the bar tomorrow at noon. I work there washing dishes. They is having church in the bar in the morning, but I’ll take, you know, a cigarette break or something before noon. I can show you where the book was.”
Jackson held open the door. “Tomorrow then.”