Crow stared with contempt at the extravagant sign plastered on the front of the Romano Blanc restaurant. Standing at the entrance were two incredibly buff security guards, no doubt planted there to ensure no ruffians entered such a prestigious eatery.
Standing next to Crow was his partner and loyal friend Boris Palenik, a muscular Russian in his mid-forties, who wore a black suit that could barely fit his bulky frame. Crow was also dressed in his finest, a white dinner jacket with a red rose in the front lapel. His hair was combed back, and he had even trimmed his beard. In his arms he held a wrapped-up box.
As Crow glared at the building, seething over what he was here to do, Boris spoke, in his usual broken English, “This place look too good for men like us.”
“That’s what they want you to think,” growled Crow, his voice thick with bitterness.
Boris caught the anger in his friend’s tone, and chuckled, “You still sore over having to trade wood?”
“This damn thing—” said Crow, indicating the package, “—almost killed me. All the times I could have died, trying to get this stupid plank, and now Jerry’s trading it like it’s…a trading card?”
“That cogent simile.”
“Don’t patronize me, Boris.”
“You being irrational. In his business, trade always happening.” He then smirked. “So how you going to keep wood?”
“Am I that obvious?”
“Obvious, stupid…it just second nature for you, Gully.”
Crow continued to scowl as he said, “Well, as it happens, I do have a cunning plan.”
“I’m not gonna go through with it. I’ll keep the wood, and with your help, I’ll get that ring from Rath, and then that way, Carson can keep the Ark wood while getting the ring as well, to add to his collection.”
“That most cunning thing I ever heard.”
“Shut up. It goes without saying we’ll have to improvise a little. Besides, that’s not the cunning part. The cunning part is the higher payment we’ll score off the old man.”
Boris shook his head, smiling in amusement. “Well, shall we go in?”
The two walked up to the guards, and they gave the pair a suspicious glance-over. One of them said, in French-accented English, “You Americans?”
Crow spoke first, in fluent French. “Yes, regrettably. We are here to make a business transaction.”
The guards both showed surprise at Crow’s fluent French, and the other man said, “You’re French is good, American.”
“May we ‘Americans’ enter?”
The guards looked at each other, and then shrugged simultaneously, stepping aside. Crow grinned, as he and Boris walked through the large front doors to step into the very definition of luxury.
The restaurant was vast, with incredibly precise replicas of Old Masters decorating the walls, and massive chandeliers hanging from the roof, bathing the establishment in a soothing orange glow. The tables were all neatly arranged, and the place was utterly packed with people, all of whom looked wealthy enough to buy the restaurant themselves. Crow and Boris were instantly met by a waitress, who said, “Good evening and welcome to the Romano Blanc! If you would please follow me, gentlemen.”
They did as they were told, following the woman through the room, passing by people pleasantly chatting or laughing as they wined and dined the night away. Crow was beginning to get very hungry, with the aromas that floated through the air threatening to overwhelm him. To distract himself, he asked the waitress, “Excuse me, we are here to meet somebody. Name of—”
“Lydia Rath? Yes, she told me to expect you, sir. I am to bring you to her now. It is Gulliver Crow, correct?”
Crow nodded as they continued walking. Finally, they came to a smaller table, where sat an elderly woman dressed in a black dress-suit. Her grey hair was tied up in a bun in the back, and her face gave the impression of a lady with power, intelligence, and class. Crow stood next to her, and extended his hand, saying, “Madame. Gulliver Crow.”
Lydia Rath took his hand and shook it, and proceeded to completely unnerve Crow as she transformed her haughty-looking face into one of youthful vitality. She happily said, “Lydia! Lydia Rath. Welcome, Mr. Crow, welcome! I’m so delighted to meet you, at last! And whom,” she gestured to Boris, “may I ask is this gentleman?”
Boris did a slight bow, as he said, “Boris Palenik. I am Gully’s pilot.”
“Not to mention partner,” added Crow, wanting to give Boris proper credit. The two sat down across from Rath, and she continued, “Very nice to meet you, Mr. Palenik. Ah, this is so wonderful, finally meeting the son of Humphrey Crow!”
Crow felt his eyes glaze over, as he sighed. “Yup, that’s me…”
“Your father and I had known each other for a good many years. He was a most delightful man! So charming and polite!”
Crow was starting to dislike this woman again. “Sounds like a real saint, doesn’t he, Boris?”
Boris nodded, his expression tense.
Rath seemed to pick up on the darkness of Crow’s tone, and cleared her throat awkwardly before resuming her happy demeanor, “So, I must ask, how is Jerry doing? Haven’t seen him since the divorce. I hope he’s doing well.”
Crow nodded. “He’s fine. Guy could probably climb Everest and still want more out of life…”
Rath laughed, a pleasant sound, and Crow found himself annoyed at how Rath was actually coming across as quite sweet and likable, contrary to how Carson described her. He continued, “Seriously, though, he’s doing great.”
“I’m thrilled to hear that. So, you brought the Ark wood, I see.”
Crow nodded, lifting the package. “Yeah. But the real question is, did you bring the ring?”
Rath narrowed her eyes at him. “You don’t trust me?”
Crow smirked. “On principle. Work ethic. No offense.”
Rath seemed to accept this, and continued, “Well, Mr. Crow, I regret to tell you that there is to be a slight…alteration to the terms of this exchange.”
Crow raised an eyebrow. “What alteration?”
“I’m afraid I do not presently possess Andvarinaut.”
Crow crossed his arms over his chest. “And I don’t possess the will to continue this conversation. No ring, no wood, and definitely no IOU.”
Rath quickly said, “No, no! That’s not it at all, Mr. Crow! I assure you, I have every intention of trading Andvarinaut. But please permit me to explain why it is not on my person.”
Crow looked at Boris, and his partner shrugged. Crow shook his head, muttering, “Fine.”
Rath looked relieved at being given the opportunity to explain.
“Andvarinaut has been stolen from me, Mr. Crow.”
“Loki back to his old tricks again?”
“And I would like to hire you and your partner to retrieve it. Once you have it, then we shall resume our transaction.”
Crow shook his head again. “Look, Miss Rath—”
“Fifty-million, all in advance.”
Crow’s eyes bulged out of their sockets. Boris let out a whistle, and muttered, “Maybe we should have Miss Rath as primary employer now, eh, Gully?”
Crow continued to stare at Rath. “You can’t be serious?”
Rath was smiling sweetly. “I’m entirely serious, gentlemen. I always pay the people I hire in advance, as a sign of trust. So far, none of them have had the balls to renege on that trust, because they know that if they were to cross me, they’d find themselves dangling from the top of the Moshe Aviv Tower by their real balls.”
Crow gulped. What a lovely image…
Boris nudged Crow, murmuring, “Well?”
Crow addressed Rath again, “How was said ring stolen, if I may ask?”
“Yesterday, men broke into my private collection, and took it. They left everything else untouched. However, my men were able to capture one of them.”
Her expression turned grim.
“He claims to work for Shinzi Berlati.”
Crow let out a long sigh. “Well, that sucks…”
“My sentiments exactly.”
Shinzi Berlati, despite his quirky and seemingly multilingual name, was a force to be reckoned with. Head of a massive black-market operation specializing in the ‘trading’ of items both arcane and expensive, he had a veritable army of cronies who tracked down and stole any ancient relic that they could get their hands on. Although his dabblings in the underworld extended mostly to unorthodox antique collecting, he was not averse to running a few cage matches, particularly the ones that occurred in his Bangkok club.
Crow paused, before suddenly saying, “I don’t suppose diplomacy is an option between you and Berlati?”
“Probably not after what I did to his lackey.”
“You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“I don’t imagine many people have survived having a cobra go up their anus…”
Crow shivered. “What do you do in your spare time?”
Rath moved on, “But anyway, Berlati is, according to my sources, in Bangkok as we speak.”
Crow said, “And you want us to go there, and steal back the ring?”
Rath smirked. “Exactly.”
Crow rubbed his face, thinking hard. Screw the ark wood! If he accepted this, he would be getting an extra fifty-million dollars in addition to Carson’s thirty-million. The opportunity was too good to pass up.
He sighed, and extended his hand to Rath…