I watched on in wonder as a red bird circled high in the room. Matthew had always been fond of birds. He could identify their gender and species while they were still a blur of color soaring through the sky. To me, one bird was as good as any. Even still, I smiled at it appreciatively, as if it were a sign. Breaking away from my admiration, I tensed as the smell of smoke suddenly inhabited the room. It seemed in a simultaneous manner that the other guests reacted to it as well.
The curator sprung to his feet as the fire alarm sounded. Without a moments hesitation, he gestured to the fire escape, the side door. His composure was forced and there was a detectable layer of frantic worry under his calm.
I covered my nose and mouth against the smoke that threatened to invade my lungs. The guests piled out of the museum; squished together like sardines in a can. I reached for my bag to join the panic-stricken procession. When I lifted the straps of it to my shoulder, I realized it was considerably lighter. A slight chill ran up my spine, despite the heat from the flames. Quickly, I pushed chairs aside and crept under the table.
"Miss Dallas, come now, before the fire spreads!" Mr. Burke barked. I bit the skin on my thumb as worry washed over me. "I'll be right there. I just have to get the tome. Have you seen it?"
"No, I have not! " His voice boomed. "It's not worth your health. Come now before the smoke overcomes you!"
I ignored him and continued to crawl from table to table, low enough to avoid the smoke. I shook my head to keep from falling victim to the intoxicating effects of the fire. I needed to think clearly. Where could the book have gone? It was in my bag, I had checked only minutes ago. Right before the fire happened...
My chest began to constrict as my mind reeled backwards. I closed my eyes and recalled the conversation I had with the eager boy. I remembered how desperately he wanted the book, his willingness to buy it with fraudulent money. From there my answer was clear. Of course he stole it. Who else would have? I rose quickly and kicked a chair out of my way. "Bastard," I cried, as the curator made his way over to me. He arched an eyebrow, an odd effect over his wide frightened eyes. I shook my head and suppressed a sob. Mr. Burke clutched my arm, and all but dragged me out of the room. In the hallway, a velvety red book with gold trim was perched on the table. It was a book that all of the guests were directed to sign before entering the showcase room. Without thinking, I discreetly grabbed it in passing, and secured it in my bag before we escaped the building.
"A tragedy," Mr. Burke whispered. We stood back in the parking lot, transfixed on the front of the building. The drapes to the front window were now engulfed in flames. I felt a stab of guilt. Until now, I hadn't thought of all the research and artifacts, he may have lost in the fire. My only worry was for my book.
The sounds of sirens neared the parking lot. I pressed a quick kiss to Mr. Burke's cheek. "I'm so sorry." I told him. Having said that, I sprinted to my car before anyone could protest, or authorities could arrive and question the crowd. Without looking back, I peeled out of the parking lot, towards the main highway.
Once I put a few miles between myself and the museum, I pulled over at a rest stop. I took my phone out of my bag, and quickly punched in a speed dial code.
"Taya Dallas," A voice purred on the other line.
"A A Ron Dawson," I retorted, doing my best to keep the desperation out of my voice. Aaron Dawson was known in my social circle as to hook up man, the go to guy for almost anything; fake ideas, passports, hacking into computers. He knew how to manipulate the system completely. It was said that his skill was passed on from his father who graduated from West Point with high honors.
"What do you need honey?" Straight and to the point. That's what I liked about A A Ron.
"Are you by your computer?" I rushed.
"Why, yes. He's sitting on my lap right now in fact."
I rubbed my temples as I spoke. "Okay... It's gonna be a big I owe you."
"Mm mmm, I'll put it on your tab. But make it quick sweetheart, Housewives is on in ten."
- "I need you to do a background check."
"Ooh, who is the new guy?" He teased.
I shook my head, but suddenly stopped when I realized how futile it was. "No, I need a quick background check on about-" I reached for the book, and turned it to the most recent page of guest signatures. I flipped backwards a page to give him a precise estimate. "Sixty people."
"Shut. Up!" Aaron exclaimed.
"Please. For an old friend?" I begged.
"What have you gotten yourself into?" He demanded.
I sighed into the receiver. "I thought you weren't supposed to ask questions... I'm just looking for one guy. Early to mud twenties, in a sea of senior citizens. It can't be too hard!"
"That's what she said," Aaron quipped. He muttered a slew of barely distinguishable curses, before speaking into the phone. "Fine Taya! But you owe me, owe me!"
I thanked him again, before reading off the long list of names and offering a suffice description of the book theif.