1: We'll Always Have Paris
‘What would you do,’ asked Leonardo da Vinci suddenly, ‘if you had a time machine?’
There was a moment of silence. The question had changed the direction of the conversation considerably. Hangovers aside, no one could come up with an immediate answer.
‘Come on,’ sighed Leonardo. ‘Surely it's an obvious question? Have you never thought about it before?’
‘It's like asking what you'd do if you won a million dollars,’ mused Napoleon. ‘Everyone always wishes they would, but you ask anyone what they'd spend the money on, and they’re stumped for an answer.’
The studio was a mess. It was 1503 and they were in Florence, only Leonardo kept insisting they call it Firenze, which was its proper Italian name. The party they'd had last night could probably have been heard in Roma.
The sun was streaming through the studio windows. Even though it was well past lunchtime, many of last night's revellers were still asleep or, more likely, still unconscious. But Leonardo, who had hosted the birthday celebrations, had been leisurely with his alcohol intake and had wisely avoided going anywhere near the Venusian brandy. Mozart hadn't returned after declaring loudly just before midnight that he was ‘going into town’ and William Blake was looking distinctly worse for wear, vowing he was never going to drink again. But Leonardo was full of energy and had been hard at work since early that morning.
‘If I had a time machine,’ said Thomas Chippendale, ‘I'd go into the future, buy up all the cheap leather I could, and bring it back with me. Then I could lower my prices.’
‘Bloody liberal,’ scowled Shakespeare.
‘Lower my prices so I could sell more chairs,’ protested Thomas, and the others all smiled and nodded approvingly. Shakespeare apologized.
‘If I had a time machine,’ said Dickens, ‘I would go a hundred years into the future and meet my great grandchildren.’
‘BOR-ING,’ they all chorused.
‘I'd rework copyright legislation so that no one could perform my plays without paying a percentage of the box office into a specially set up bank account,’ said Shakespeare, ‘and then I'd travel forward to the twentieth century, empty the account, and bring all the money back to the seventeenth century. I'd be a bloody zillionaire!’
‘Is ‘zillionaire’ a real word?’ pondered Homer.
‘I just made it up,’ shrugged Will, and then he wrote it in his little notebook with all his other inventions of vocabulary. ‘What about you, birthday boy?’
‘Ah...well...’ The Doctor tilted his head to the side and looked quizzical. ‘I don't really know if I should be allowed to participate in this discussion.’
‘Answer the question!’
‘Well,’ said the Doctor, tongue in cheek, ‘perhaps I'd try to assemble a group of famous artists from all throughout time, find a nice spot somewhere in history and spend an evening with them celebrating and debating and enjoying their company?’ There were guffaws of laughter from the assembled company.
‘What about him?’ scoffed Will, pointing at Napoleon. ‘He's no artist!’
‘I've turned war into an art,’ Napoleon said lamely, ignoring the sniggering.
‘It can't be the same when time travelling is your occupation,’ said Dickens to the Doctor. ‘There's nothing novel about it for you. You can do what you like, go wherever you like.’
‘Not at the moment,’ replied the Doctor. ‘I'm on holiday, I've decided. For the next month I'm doing nothing. I've broken enough laws of Time just in having this party. And besides, I wouldn't call time travelling an occupation. It's a vocation, if anything. Like art.’
‘If I paint a house, then it's an occupation,’ said Leonardo as he chose a finer brush and pondered over the choice of colour. ‘And this kind of stuff, painting to order - that's occupational, I suppose. I'm doing it to pay the rent, not because of any great artistic calling. But I still enjoy it.’
‘I'd travel forward into the future,’ said Homer, ‘get copies of the current translation of The Iliad and take them back home with me. Not only would it be proof of my immortality, but it would mean I wouldn't have to worry about remembering the whole story every time I tell it. I could just refer to the text, instead of having to do the whole storytelling number.’
‘Good idea,’ enthused Basho and Krishna.
‘I'd want to visit Paris,’ said Napoleon, and they all sighed affectionately.
‘The City of Life,’ smiled Leonardo.
‘The City of Light,’ smiled Michelangelo.
‘The City of Love,’ smiled Rostand.
‘The City of Wine,’ smiled Shakespeare, and everyone cheered.
‘I want to see it when I've conquered it,’ Napoleon continued, ‘and turned it into a city that celebrates Art. Because that's what I'll do. Build museums and galleries, and plunder all the riches and treasures of the world and store them there. That way all the great artists and all the great artwork won't be scattered throughout time and space. Everything will be in Paris. It will become the Eternal City.’ Everyone tried to sound impressed. ‘What do you think, Leonardo?’ asked Napoleon. ‘Where would you rather see your stuff displayed? In Paris, or here in boring old Firenze?’
Leonardo stared at the canvas in front of him, and then at the subject of his painting again. He'd come to a halt and was thinking seriously about his own question. ‘What I'd really like to do,’ he said at last, ‘is go into the future and see if all this was worth it. Find out what people really thought - see if my paintings really are any good, or find out if human beings ever actually create flying machines, or visit the stars...I wish sometimes you could tell us a bit more than you ever do, Doctor.’
‘It's far too early in the day to be so philosophical and serious,’ smirked Sophocles. ‘And why does everyone want to go into the future? Wouldn't anyone like to visit the past? What about you, Lisa?’
‘Visit the past?’ answered the subject of Leonardo's work-in-progress. ‘Bugger off!’
‘Where would you go, then?’ Leonardo asked.
Lisa del Giocondo answered without hesitation. ‘To any point in the future when you've managed to finish this stupid painting. My arse is bloody killing me!’
It might have been good enough for Napoleon, but if there was one place Detective Sergeant James Duggan did not want to be, it was Paris.
Mind you, he thought as he stared at the ceiling of his hundred-franc-per night hotel room, it was all very well for Bonaparte. He got to have processions, festivals, fanfares and the beautiful Josephine on his arm. He got to plunder the city's riches, feast on its food and swim in its wine. He didn't get paper-thin walls, cockroaches and a totally bewildering underground system. Duggan hated the food, hated the wine, hated the coffee and the artwork bewildered him. After a month in Paris, a month in this lousy hotel, the only things he could appreciate about the world were that it was May 1979 and it was raining.
Duggan's career with the London Metropolitan Police force had not turned out to be the success he'd hoped for. His preferred method of investigation was to hit first and ask questions later. This invariably got results, but sometimes innocent people got hurt, and it was for this reason that his superiors had advised him to retire from the police work at the age of thirty-five. It had seemed that the world in which he'd joined the police force, where a criminal was guilty until proven Irish until an ignorant jury decided otherwise, had changed and no one wanted policemen to be the figures of power and authority they had once been.
After leaving the force, Duggan spent two years drifting in and out of jobs. After a month of sitting alone night after night in his Willesden Green bed sit, knocking back the whiskey, he eventually accepted that the police force was not the job for him. He took on a job as a hotel porter, working through the night and earning a terrible hourly wage. Then he cleaned out chicken sheds for a better wage, but one which seemed to be entirely blown on the two hours’ daily commuting out to the residence of his employer. His big break came when he was employed as bodyguard to a Sultan who spent a lot of time in London, bringing his sisters, brothers, wives and cousins with him wherever he went. Quite what Duggan was supposed to do should anyone actually pose a threat to the family was never established, but they gave him a gun and an enormous amount of ready money for his service. He was devastated when, in a misunderstanding with a hotel porter which ended with undelivered luggage and the porter unconscious, the Sultan terminated his employment.
He then worked for a law firm as a divorce investigator - which did not entail physical violence - with the exception of one particular case. Whilst watching the central London flat where Percival Malfont-Blosse was suspected to be having regular lunchtime meetings with his vivacious secretary, he had been confronted by Malfont-Blosse himself, and a scene had ensued. Duggan had reacted in the best way he knew how. Percival had ended up in hospital with a fractured nose, and Duggan had been fired. Veronica Malfont-Blosse, who had for a long time wanted proof of her husband's illicit liaisons, was delighted. So delighted, in fact, that when the British Art Society of which she was chairperson, decided to hire a private detective to investigate the mystery of reappearing art treasures in France, the ex-Mrs. Malfont-Blosse knew just the man for the job.
They'd paid his economy fare, they were paying for his lousy hotel and his dreadful meals and the foul coffee, with a guarantee of massive financial remuneration when he was able to unravel the mystery for them. The problem was that he was too ignorant of art to be able to infiltrate the buying and selling ring, so he'd had to rely on good old-fashioned snooping and surveillance, in the hope that he could catch them, whoever they were, in the act.
He let out a groan as the alarm beside the bed rang. He was sick of Paris and sick of this frustrating assignment.
It might, in retrospect, have seemed an oversight that no tourist guides to the best galleries in Paris mentioned the château of Count Carlos Feresdon de Puisson Scarlioni. Travellers armed with their trusty Lonely Planets and their Rough Guides usually made notes as to which paintings or sculptures were housed in which European museums or galleries and the most pedantic of art students ticked off each masterpiece as they located and saw it. You could rest assured that if you couldn't find that particular vase or print anywhere, no matter how many text books you'd seen it in, chances were the Count Scarlioni owned it.
The château itself was a minor work of art. Five hundred years old, it had once been the Paris residence of Lucretia and Cesare Borgia, the renowned Italian sadists who loved a decent holiday in France whenever they needed a rest from all the murdering and torturing. The Borgias were hardly interested in art, but once Lucretia shuffled off her mortal coil one sunny afternoon in 1519, twelve years after killing her beloved Cesare, the château seemed to have passed through a succession of mysterious owners who kept quietly to themselves. Families who had lived in the same affluent area for generations could not claim to have ever been invited inside, nor seen much of whichever current owner was in residence. A two metre high security fence surrounded the perimeter of the house and only one entrance, two huge iron doors with a decidedly gothic engraving of the screaming face of a snake-haired woman, broke the austerity of the impregnable exterior. Once through the double doors a magnificent courtyard led across to the entrance to the house. The house was well surrounded by shrubbery and foliage. The Scarlionis liked their privacy.
Professor Kerensky had decided they liked their privacy too much. He sighed as he found himself descending the staircase into the château's cellar yet again. He was tired. He was miserable. He had not seen genuine daylight for weeks. It seemed, he had often thought over the period of his employment with the Count, that once you were inside the château, you weren't allowed out again until your work was done.
‘I can proceed no further, Count!’ he announced. They were words he had been rehearsing since waking up. Today was the day, he had decided, that he finally gave the Count an ultimatum. He was not a naturally aggressive man - if anything, he had a predisposition to being nervous and he found himself instantly regretting every word he spoke. ‘Research costs money. If you want results, we must have the money!’
The Count barely glanced back at him as they reached the bottom of the staircase and entered what was now a converted laboratory. Computer banks lined the walls, chattering away and spooling out a steady stream of information. A large fume cupboard stood in one corner, accompanied by various incubation units. Tables were spread with folders and files full of information and documentation.
In the centre of the laboratory stood a magnificent piece of machinery. It consisted of a metre-square pad in the middle, and protruding from underneath the pad there were three projectors. Each one had two angled joints so that the transparent conical ends of each projector aimed in towards the pad. Standing beside the machine was a plain wooden table upon which were two panels covered with switches and gauges, connected to massive power units that rose from the floor to the ceiling.
Count Scarlioni crossed the laboratory to a table. He looked briefly through an open file before finally looking up to meet Kerensky's angry stare. ‘I can assure you, Professor,’ he said, ‘money is no problem.’
Scarlioni appeared to be in his thirties. He had grey hair, slicked smartly back, and a Cheshire cat-like face. His charming smile seemed winningly designed to succumb others to his will with ease and matched his pale linen suit effortlessly.
Professor Kerensky nodded wearily. ‘So you tell me, Count Scarlioni, so you tell me every day. Money is no problem.’ He picked up several slips of red paper from the table nearest him and waved them in the air. ‘So what do you want me to do with all these equipment invoices? Write ‘no problem’ on them and send them back?’
The Count remained calm and reached into his jacket. He produced a fat bundle of bank notes and handed them to the Professor. ‘Will a million francs ease the immediate cash flow situation?’ he asked casually.
‘Yes, Count!’ Kerensky said as he stared in wonder at the cash. More money. Where did the Count get it all from? He wagged a finger at the Count as though scolding him. ‘But I will shortly need a great deal more!’
Count Scarlioni nodded. ‘Yes, of course, Professor. Of course. Nothing must interfere with the work.’
Kerensky shrank away from the Count, looking miserably again at the money and trying to draw his thoughts together as to where today's starting point would be. He should have known that, no matter how worked up he managed to make himself, the Count would disarm the situation just like that and take the wind out of his sails. Soon, he thought, another servant would come to take care of all the contact Kerensky needed with the outside world if he was going to keep to the Count's schedule. He was never, he concluded, going to get out of this wretched château.
A third man came down the steps into the laboratory. Just the sight of Hermann made the Professor shudder. The Count's butler and bodyguard was the tallest, solidest, ugliest man the Professor had ever seen. It was a mark of the Count's wealth, he thought, that such an ogre could be supplied with such a beautifully-fitting suit. ‘You rang, Excellency?’ he asked in his guttural tones as he approached the Count.
‘Ah, Hermann.’ The Count drew the butler aside out of the Professor's earshot. ‘That Gainsborough didn't fetch nearly enough,’ he said in hushed tones. ‘I think we'll have to sell one of the bibles.’
Hermann frowned. ‘Sir?’
‘Yes,’ mused the Count. ‘The Gutenberg.’
‘May I suggest,’ murmured Hermann, ‘that we tread more carefully, sir? It would not be in our best interests to draw too much attention to ourselves. Another rash of ‘priceless treasures’ on the market...’
‘Yes, I know, Hermann,’ said the Count with a broad smile. ‘Sell it discreetly.’
‘Discreetly?’ Hermann gaped at the Count in disbelief. ‘Sell a Gutenberg bible discreetly?’
The Count shrugged. ‘Well, as discreetly as possible.’ Hermann still looked disapproving, so the Count snapped, ‘Just do it, will you?’ before keeping his temper in check.
Hermann winced at the firm tone, careful as always not to anger his master. ‘Of course, sir,’ he mumbled, bowing in subservience before hurrying back up the staircase.
Scarlioni turned his attention back to Professor Kerensky, who had been busying himself with his equipment, in order to look as though he were not trying to overhear their conversation. ‘Are we ready,’ he enquired, adopting a louder and more cheerful tone of voice, ‘to begin with today's experiments of the equipment?’
‘Give me an hour, Count,’ pleaded Kerensky. ‘Just one hour.’
To Kerensky's surprise, the Count's response was more reasonable than he would have thought possible from the man. ‘Just an hour, you say, Professor? Good. I'll be back then.’
Giving Kerensky another of his enigmatic smiles, the Count turned away and made his way back up the stairs into the house.
Kerensky sighed as he heard the door at the top of the staircase close followed by the inevitable clunk of the key turning in the lock.
She stared at the wide green bracelet, fascinated that such a simple object could be considered so important.
She was tall, thin, with thick auburn hair and smoked a long cigarette in an expensive cigarette holder as she sat in the lounge of the château. Her clothes were clearly also very expensive, but then money was hardly a problem for this woman. Her husband had one of the largest credit card collections in all of Europe.
She was the Countess Scarlioni.
She loved this life. This was the life she had dreamed of living. Often she would reflect on where she would be had she not met the Count five years ago and discovered his secret life as a criminal. Her initial plan had been to expose him to the police, who were offering a substantial reward for information as to the whereabouts of the Monet painting he had stolen from the Orangerie, but when she realized that this was not his only theft it made more sense to blackmail him into marriage and share in the rewards of his labours. They both profited from such an arrangement - he had a vivacious and charming wife to help divert suspicion at every social event they attended when he would be casing the place out for his next illicit purchase. And she had access to riches beyond her imaginings. Eventually, she would have him killed and inherit his fortune, but for now she was content with things the way they were.
The luxurious and spacious lounge, like the Countess, had obviously also had a good deal of money spent on it. Next to the couch on which she was sitting were two immaculate Louis Quinze chairs, and a table over by the large lounge window had four upturned glasses and a bottle of wine in an ice bucket all on a silver tray. An enormous vase stood next to the ornate fireplace, above which hung a large mirror, and paintings adorned all four walls. Various forms of art from different centuries that shouldn't have matched filled the room, but together they all signified one thing - wealth. And the rest of the châ teau was just the same.
The Countess took another puff on her cigarette and then stubbed it out in an ashtray on the low table in front of her. She then picked up a small, ornately crafted box and deftly pressed it at certain points, creating a series of sharp clicking noises which released the box lid. Sliding it open, she placed the bracelet inside and closed the lid again.
The lounge doors opened, and the Count entered. A weaker human being might have started, but the Countess Scarlioni knew how to remain cool in the face of adversity. And while there was no love lost between them, their mutual love of money made their relationship a great deal easier. ‘All set for your little trip to the Louvre?’ the Count enquired as he wandered over to her.
‘Of course.’ She returned his sly, almost mocking smile.
‘You won't forget the bracelet, I trust?’ he continued. He picked the box up, as she had done before him, quickly sprang the lid and took the object from within it.
‘No.’ He clipped the bracelet around her wrist. His touch was cold. When his hand came away she looked up at her husband. ‘What is it for?’ she wanted to know.
Count Scarlioni chuckled mysteriously. ‘Let's just say it will make us both richer than you can possibly imagine...’
The early morning drizzle had all but disappeared and the sun was showing signs of rearing its head. Duggan had been waiting an hour. The bitter coffee was cold in the polystyrene cup he clutched in one hand, while his third cigarette was pressed firmly to his lips. When he'd tried to light it he had tried to balance the half-empty cup in the crook of his arm in order to have both hands free, and he'd spilt coffee on his trenchcoat. He could already tell it would be one of those days that turned out to be too hot for the excess of clothes he'd put on back when it seemed wet and cold.
Half-past nine and there was already a queue leading up to the entrance of the Louvre. The percentage of tourists was always so high that it was never difficult to spot a genuine Parisian amongst the crowds. By lunchtime, Duggan reflected, there would be security guards up here, setting out barriers to regulate the queue into a lengthy zigzag shape, whereas now it was just a single straight line backing away from the entrance.
He glanced down the road behind him at exactly the right moment. There it was in the distance, the black limousine. It came to a stop but the motor remained running. From the front passenger seat a tall, bearded man built like a fridge emerged, dressed in a black suit. Duggan fumbled for his binoculars, dropping the cup of coffee onto the pavement. He unfurled the compact device and looked down the barrel, the butt of the cigarette burning his fingers as he tried to adjust the focus on the lens.
‘Yes,’ he whispered to himself. At last. The man, who was opening the back passenger side door, was definitely the Scarlionis’ bodyguard. And the woman the bodyguard was helping out of the car was the Countess Scarlioni, no doubt about that. A head scarf concealed her curly auburn hair and dark glasses obscured her cold eyes, but Duggan had seen her close-up enough times now to be certain it was her. The bodyguard was getting back into the car, which was unusual, Duggan thought. He hurriedly folded up the small binoculars and put them back into the deep pocket inside the trenchcoat as the limousine pulled away from the curb and came down the street towards and then past him.
He watched the car disappear down the road and then looked back to where the Countess had joined the queue. With her husband's connections she should have been able to swan in and out whenever she liked, but Duggan had learnt by now that joining the queue, like the head scarf and sunglasses, was all part of the attempt to look inconspicuous.
Already a group of tourists were standing behind her, and by the time he crossed the road and joined the queue himself Duggan knew there would be enough distance between them for her not to notice him. He dropped the cigarette butt and kicked the cup towards the gutter as he crossed the road, relieved that at last something was actually happening.
The Count Scarlioni stared at his reflection in the mirror.
There was something about the face that looked back at him. Something too perfect about the evenness and balance, about the smoothness of the skin and the unblemished complexion. The eyes were a piercing green and the white around the irises was perfect with no hint of tiredness or fatigue, no bloodshot lines or veins. Not a line on the forehead, not a hair out of place on the head. It was all too perfect somehow.
This room was supposed to be a study and was referred to as such by Hermann and by the servants. But only he was allowed in here. No one had ever dared break that rule. Not even his wife, who was unusually bold in most respects and more than prepared to stand against him or face him as an equal. If there was a problem with this union, he thought, it was that she didn't fear him nearly enough.
The room was dark, empty, silent. An armchair and the mirror were the only items of furniture and the light above the mirror the only source of illumination. It was in total contrast to the rest of the house.
He stared at his reflection, unblinking. His breathing was so shallow that he could have passed for a statue or a waxwork. His physique was also unnaturally perfect for his age; as he stood before the mirror he looked absolutely relaxed and yet also in control of every tiny muscle in his body.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed something. On his jawline, just below his left ear. He titled his head slightly so that the light caught it, leaning in towards the mirror to examine his face more closely.
Just below the ear was a crack, a blemish in the otherwise perfect skin. With a perfectly manicured finger he touched the blemish, rubbed it slightly. The skin peeled back around the crack. He took a moment to look at his smooth, veinless hand and then reached back towards the peeling skin with his thumb and forefinger. He gave a careful pull and slowly a long strip of skin peeled back down towards his chin and effortlessly broke away from his face.
All was perfect again. He scrutinised the face for any further visible blemishes but there were none.
Soon. Too soon.
The Count Scarlioni stared at his reflection in the mirror.
Kerensky had been dozing. He was exhausted and had dropped off without even realizing it whilst poring over papers at his desk in the laboratory. It was the lack of fresh air that sapped his energy; no matter how often the Count made him go to bed early in the evening, so long as he was shut inside this house with no access to daylight, not even allowed to venture out into the château's courtyard, he would be continually exhausted.
It was the key turning in the lock at the top of the stairs that awoke him with a start. A wave of dread washed over him and he scurried towards the main power units, throwing the starter switches over so that the machinery began to whir and rumble as it warmed itself up. Kerensky looked around for his glasses, fumbled for his files, tried desperately to look like he'd been hard at work as his patron descended the stairs.
‘Now, Professor,’ said Count Scarlioni, ‘shall we begin?’