The Thunder of Nautilus

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James, Nigel, and Rebecca

The conversation James, Nigel, and Rebecca had that night was not just stoned talk—it evolved into James opening his own gallery, featuring some of Rebecca’s work—which sold well. But James had branched out from the start, exhibiting and selling the work of known and unknown artists, through Nigel’s connections and James’s business know-how. While James and Nigel worked constantly, Rebecca went into a long period of inactivity and was spending her money without a thought of what the future would bring.

She was the only child of wealthy parents, who’d paid the rent on her expensive flat, bought her the car she wanted, and given her a monthly allowance so that she’d never have to face the reality of actually having to work for a living. However, Rebecca’s short success coincided with her parents’ divorce and her father’s subsequent marriage to a much younger woman, who was pregnant with his child. Soon no more money was flowing into her bank account. Her mother got as much as her lawyer could get her from the divorce and started to travel around the world, and her father told Rebecca that it was time for her to find a job and make her own money.

Feeling rejected by her parents and convinced that her lack of inspiration and thus her inactivity was because of her “financial crisis,” she accepted an offer from a friend named Karl, she knew from art-school days, to share working and living space in New York. As soon as she’d sold all she could, she left, not telling anyone about her move.

At first her life in the Big Apple had been exciting, filled with new ideas and inspiration, and she’d begun to paint again, but none of her work sold, and six months on, she called James. She told him that she’d moved to New York and was ready to have an exhibition, but she was temporarily out of cash and asked him for a loan of a thousand pounds. Jim agreed to lend the money, despite Nigel’s warning—“Look, I’m fond of her too, but she’s spoiled and I don’t trust her”— because he still had faith in her as an artist and her ability to bounce back on her feet. He had no idea that Rebecca had no intention to pay back the money she was borrowing, because her way of thinking was that the world owed her a life of fame and fortune, and she considered the fact that she had to “struggle” as totally unfair.

When he’d asked Rebecca to join him, Karl thought that she would be the same as she had been in art school—always self-assured, fun to be with, and obviously financially independent. However, once they were living together, he realized that she was totally selfish. She kept her food separate from his, and she never replaced the food—or the booze—she “borrowed” from him, and never cleaned up after herself, let alone their common space, and finally didn’t pay him any rent. Karl had given her another week to pay him rent before he was going to throw her out when Rebecca invited herself to an exhibition party, where she met a handsome artist named Hank and ended up spending the night with him at his atelier.

Hank hadn’t called her after that one-night stand and had no intention to do so, but a week later she stood with two suitcases outside of his apartment, saying she had nowhere else to go. Hank hated the fact that she’d just turned up, but he let her in and said she could stay a few days until she found another place to live. Weeks turned into months, and Rebecca stayed on. From the start she knew she couldn’t live with Hank the way she’d lived with Karl, so she made an effort to clean and cook—and an extra effort keeping him happy in bed.

Hank made his living by forging anything his customers wanted, from passports to paintings, and soon he began to think about how Rebecca could be of use to him, since she was not only very attractive but also had refined English manners. She was perfect as a classy call girl for special clients, and she turned out to be useful in his criminal activities in other ways. Rebecca stayed with Hank because she believed they were in love, but nothing was further from the truth, as far as Hank was concerned. He kept telling her that he needed space, and she kept taking her time—which was a lot longer than Hank thought he could tolerate before she moved into her own apartment. Their working relationship continued, but romantically he showed no interest in spending time with her. Then partly because she wanted to show Hank her independence and partly because renewing her visa could more easily be done by her leaving and then re-entering the United States, she booked a ticket to return to London for a quick visit.

After a brief appearance at her father’s, Rebecca arrived unannounced at James’s gallery and was greeted by Angeline, a young woman Jim had recently employed. She recognized Rebecca’s name as one of the artists listed and said James was out, but she was expecting him to return shortly. She showed Rebecca to James’s office and asked if she’d like a cup of tea.

“That would be lovely,” Rebecca said.When Angeline brought the tea she said apologetically, “He won’t be long,” and closed the door behind her.

Rebecca drank the tea as she looked nosily around James’s desk at various papers and then at his computer screen. When she clicked on it, a password-protected window appeared. “What’s so fucking important, James?” she said aloud, and then sat down in his swivel chair. While spinning around, she detected an antique easel in the corner of the room. She halted the chair, went to the corner, took off a piece of intricately woven damask, and uncovered two small paintings she recognized to be by Monet and knew that they were remarkably valuable.

Without thinking twice about the consequences of her action, she wrapped the cloth tightly around the paintings, unlocked the back door, and ran with the paintings under her arm down the narrow lane until she came to the main street. With her heart pounding in her chest, she hailed a taxi and ordered the driver to take her back to her hotel. In the anonymity of her room, she took a bottle of gin and tonic out of the mini-bar, and then took her time looking at the paintings, while she thought about a detailed plan she believed couldn’t possibly go wrong.

She then rang James’s mobile, and when he answered she didn’t spend time on polite drivel. “Can you meet me at the Chinese restaurant we used to go to in, let’s say an hour?” she said.

Surprised, James said, “Hello to you too. So you’re in London?”

“Obviously, James. Can you meet me or not?”

James, annoyed with her demanding tone, replied, “What’s the urgency, Rebecca? I’m a bit busy today. Why don’t we meet for dinner tonight?”

Rebecca said nonchalantly, “Listen, I have your two masterpieces, and I left them with a friend of mine who’ll slice them to pieces if you do something silly, like call the police. Do you understand? If you want them back, you’d better meet me.”James, completely taken aback, said, “What? If you’re

joking, it’s not funny.”

Rebecca replied, “Fuck, James. Come to the restaurant and I’ll explain.”

James said with a sense of dread, “All right—I’ll be there.” “One hour,” she concluded.

James immediately called Angeline, who confirmed that Rebecca had been to the gallery, but must have left through the back door. She expressed that this was very strange behavior and James told her to not mention Rebecca’s visit to anyone. Angeline simply replied, “Okay, no problem.” He drove as fast as London traffic would permit, and when he entered the restaurant, he saw Rebecca waving to him from a table in the far back corner away from the other patrons.

He walked towards her and angrily asked, “Becca, what the hell is going on?”

“Sit down, have a green tea,” she said calmly as she poured him a cup from a fine china teapot. “Thing is, James, I need money. I came to visit you at your gallery, and that sweet girl you have in your employ let me sit and wait in your office. She obviously doesn’t know that you keep such valuable pieces of art hidden there—so very not cautious of you.”

When the waiter came to their table, James ordered a beer, and when the waiter left, he said, “What’s wrong with you? Where are the paintings?”

“In good hands, sweetie,” she said in an even tone of voice. “Don’t worry, you’ll get them back intact if you agree to pay me a relatively small sum of money, because if you don’t I swear I’ll have them shredded and burned. You don’t want that now, do you?”

James replied slowly, “Becca, we were friends, I loaned you money. I can’t believe you’ve sunk so low. Don’t you realize what you’re doing is criminal and even downright immoral?”

“Oh wow, really, James? I couldn’t care less. I want a fraction of the money you’re going to make. Let’s say a quarter of a mill—dollars, not pounds—and I give the babies back to you, unblemished like a virgin.”

“You’ve got to be joking!” James said. “That’s not a fraction of the money I’ll make. What’s in your head? The paintings belong to a client, and I don’t even have a buyer yet.”

“Well, even more of an incentive to get them back in one piece, is it not?” Rebecca said callously, adding, “I know your dad is loaded, so ask him for the money. It’s Christmas, and I’m feeling generous. I’ll give you until just after New Year’s to organize the money. I’ll let you know details about the exchange of money for paintings—and make no mistake, Jim . . .

you involve the police and you’ll never see the paintings again.” Then she got up and whispered into his ear, “Don’t call me—I’ll call you.” Then she walked confidently out of the restaurant, leaving James to pay the bill.

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