The Thunder of Nautilus

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Justin loved and admired his older brother. To him, James represented all that he thought he lacked, including the ability to gracefully interact with others and always be successful in everything—such as finding an adorable woman like Marie. He’d slept with a few girls—being in a band did have its benefi ts, after all—but he hadn’t met a girl who came close to his idea of perfection. He didn’t have a specific picture in his head about her physical appearance, didn’t have a preference of hair color or small or big breasts, like some of the boys he knew in school, but he believed he’d know she was the right one when he met her. Meeting Marie, his phantom ideal had become real. That didn’t mean he desired her; on the contrary, precisely because she was his brother’s girlfriend and therefore unattainable did she become the epitome of his ideal woman.

He’d listened to James telling his father about Rebecca Noland and how she’d blackmailed his brother, and a deep hatred towards the woman who threatened his brother’s happiness began to germinate within him.

After Justin had returned home, he’d discussed with his parents his plans to travel in America. They were glad to hear that their son had made a friend with whom he shared a love of music, and since they’d been wanting to give him a reward for finishing school, they told him that they’d support him financially for a year of educational travel, providing he promised to continue his formal education the following year. Justin appreciated such a generous gift, and he assured his parents that he’d use this time to learn and to find direction for his future.

James and Marie had been invited to celebrate New Year’s Eve with Nigel in London, and they’d asked Justin to come along to the party. Justin was thrilled to join them, and since he was going to fl y out of Heathrow the first of the year, keeping company made good sense. On the road trip, he entertained Marie and James by playing easy chords of late sixties/early seventies songs they all could sing together, more or less in tune, and the three of them were in a great party mood when they arrived at James’s flat in London. Justin chose some Rolling Stones from Jim’s CD collection, what he called “oldies”, while Jim opened a bottle of champagne and Marie pretended to be a model by striking poses in a variety of clothes she found in James’s closet that she combined with her own clothes in eccentric ways. Jim and Justin joined Marie in the fun of dressing up, and after they told each other that they couldn’t look any more fantastic, they decided to catch a taxi to Nigel’s place, although it was relatively early to arrive at a party.

Nigel welcomed them with hugs and kisses all around, saying he was glad they’d come early. He guided them into the kitchen, where other early guests busied themselves getting plates of cheese and fruit and dips ready, or stood around drinking and eating finger foods as fast as they were produced. Introductions were made, and Marie recognized Paul as one of the guests from her welcome-to-London party. He’d been conservatively dressed the first time she met him, but now he was shimmering in an iridescent silver dress and wearing a shiny tiara.

He greeted her like an old friend, saying, “Darling, where have you been hiding? Surely not in that ghastly cottage all this time now, have you?”

Marie said emphatically, “Yes, I have!”

Paul laughed and poured her a glass of sparkling wine. “Now tell us all about your naughty country life, sweetheart,” he said. Marie was drawn into a lively conversation with Paul and didn’t pay attention to James and Justin, who disappeared with Nigel into his bedroom.

Nigel hadn’t known Rebecca’s address when James had called him, so he’d engaged David, an acquaintance and a private detective who found out where she lived in New York, where and how long she’d been staying in London, and when she’d returned to the States. The whereabouts of the paintings, however, remained unknown. Nigel affirmed Jim’s reasonable fear that Rebecca was capable of executing her threat to destroy the paintings if she didn’t get what she wanted, and they agreed that it would be best to follow her instructions as far as the exchange of money and paintings were concerned, but to involve David and his expertise to get evidence of her extortion. Nigel told James that David was expected later that night and they’d be able to talk then. Throughout the conversation, Justin had listened carefully, wrote down Rebecca’s address, and had remained silent, not disclosing his idea to help his brother.

Knowing that no more could be done that night, the boys decided to just enjoy the party, which was in full swing without them. It was close to midnight when David arrived and Nigel introduced him to Jim, and they made a plan to fly to New York together on the second of January and confront Rebecca. In the meantime they decided to enjoy New Year’s and figure out the details at a more sensible time of the day. After midnight, the revelry lasted for a couple more hours, but gradually guests left until only a few were settled with rhythm instruments around Justin on lead guitar, Nigel on bass, and Marie singing improvised lyrics. James, Justin, and Marie went home just before dawn, and they slept a few hours before they had to get up and drive Justin to Heathrow, who was flying to New Orleans at 1:00 p.m.

Justin felt extremely relaxed, slept most of the flight, and was feeling remarkably refreshed by the time Julian met him at the airport. Julian had booked them into a quaint, old-fashioned hotel in the heart of New Orleans, where Justin dumped his luggage and took a quick shower before they went out.

The friends had a lot to talk about and over dinner took plenty of time to exchange news and make plans to soak up everything the town had to offer.

After dinner, the friends threw themselves into the nightlife and partied all night long. Justin made sure that Julian drank lots of double shots of tequila and lots of beers while he stayed reasonably sober. After he took the plastered Julian back to the hotel and was sure that his friend was in a deep alcohol-induced sleep, he left with an overnight bag containing a long black coat, a pair of cotton gloves, and a soft hat to hide his red hair. He took a cab to the airport and caught a redeye flight to New York.

It was still very early in the morning and the day was as gloomy as the apartment block where Rebecca lived when Justin arrived in front of the building and noted that, conveniently, there was no one in attendance. In the list of tenants posted beside the locked door, he saw that her flat was on the third floor, He pushed the doorbell beside her name and waited until he heard a voice say, “Hank, is that you?”

Justin, lowering his voice slightly, said, “Yeah, it’s me.” When he heard the buzz of the door unlocking, Justin pushed against it and entered the hallway.

When he arrived at her door, he found it opportunely open and no one in sight. He let himself in and quietly closed the door. He then heard a voice calling from the adjoining room: “You’re early. Coffee’s on—help yourself. I’m getting dressed.” He put on the gloves and, without haste, took note of every painting hanging on the walls as he walked through the living room. Again he heard her calling: “Why don’t you make some pancakes, honey? I got maple syrup from Vermont. Fucking beautiful!”

He walked calmly into the bedroom and saw her pulling a T-shirt over her head. When Rebecca saw him, she simply was surprised for a split second, but then fear became a surge of terror, and before she was able to scream, Justin grabbed the back of her head with one hand and with the other firmly closed her mouth. He said unemotionally, “You scream and I kill you now. Stay quiet and we make a deal and you can continue your pathetic existence.”

Taking hold of her hair in his fist and pulling hard for a second, he said, “Can we talk?” and she nodded, her eyes filled with apprehension. Justin released the hand over her mouth, banged her head hard once against the wall, and threw her, shocked, onto the armchair beside the bed and loomed over her.

“Wh . . . what . . . what do you want from me?” she said with fear in her voice.

“The paintings,” he said curtly.

She said arrogantly, “Take your pick—I’ve got lots.”

His fist connected with her jaw, and she experienced severe pain, as if she’d been hit with a hammer inside her empty head. Justin said icily, “Next time I break your nose, then every bone in your body if you don’t tell me where you keep the paintings you’ve stolen.”

As she held her jaw, she said, “All right, all right—give me a minute.”

Justin continued: “Obviously you’re expecting somebody, so there’s no time to waste. Where are you hiding the paintings?”

She laughed out loud and said, “I sold them.”

This time the pain was so intense that she bent forward and moaned as blood ran through her fingers and dripped to the floor.

“Where are the paintings?” Justin said once more.

She cried, “In the fucking walk-in closet.” She pointed to a door and then sobbed uncontrollably. Justin made Rebecca stand up and forcefully held her left arm as he opened the door and took her with him. He found not only the two paintings James had shown on his laptop, but copies as well.

“So you had reproductions made,” he said.

She countered, cackling, “Yeah, and I suppose you can tell which ones are the originals.”

Justin didn’t respond—he just pushed her out of the closet into the bathroom, took the key out from one side, and locked the door from the other. He took all four paintings, locked the entrance door behind him, and walked out of her flat and the building into the morning of a bright, sunny day.

Justin walked with composure down the street, hailed down a cab, and told the driver to stop and wait for him at an express mailing service, where he had the paintings packed, insured, and sent to James’s flat. Then he went on to the airport. He disposed of the gloves and the hat in the airport washroom garbage bin and took the first available flight back to New Orleans.

He found Julian drinking coffee in the hotel lounge, and his friend said, “You got up early. Where’ve you been?”

Justin replied, “Oh, I flew to New York and back, had breakfast on the way.”

Julian laughed and said, “Well, next time make sure you take me along”

Justin said, “Absolutely!”

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