Authors: Estelle Ryan
The Dante Connection
Art theft. Coded messages. A high-level threat.
Despite her initial disbelief, Doctor Genevieve Lenard discovers that she is the key that connects stolen works of art, ciphers and sinister threats.
Betrayed by the people who called themselves her friends, Genevieve throws herself into her insurance investigation job with autistic single-mindedness. When hacker Francine appears beaten and bloodied on her doorstep, begging for her help, Genevieve is forced to get past the hurt of her friends' abandonment and team up with them to find the perpetrators.
Little does she know that it will take her on a journey through not one, but two twisted minds to discover the true target of their mysterious messages. It will take all her personal strength and knowledge as a nonverbal communications expert to overcome fears that could cost not only her life, but the lives of many others.
The Dante Connection
A Genevieve Lenard Novel
By Estelle Ryan
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including internet usage, without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First published 2013
Copyright © 2013 by Estelle Ryan
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is purely incidental.
This is almost an exact
copy of the acknowledgements in my first book. I am so very honoured to be surrounded by amazing people. I’m truly standing on the shoulders of giants.
Anna J Kutor, for your unending and
unconditional support, and your patience. Charlene, you know you own my heart. Linette, for being the best sister anyone can ask for. Moeks, for your faith in me. R.J. Locksley for editing. Wilhelm and Kasia, Kamila, Ania B and Piotrek, Krystina, Maggie, Julie, Jola, Alta and the B(l)ogsusters for all your interest and support. Iwo, for such amazing help with all things IT and hacking related. A special thank you to Jane for your love and support.
And then a very special thank you to those readers who have reached out and contacted me after reading
The Gauguin Connection
. Writing is an extremely isolated job. Receiving feedback from such amazing, gracious people have left me humbled and counting my blessings. A mere thank you is not enough to express my gratitude for each email and encouraging word. Keep them coming!
“Genevieve, you have to help me. I killed two men.”
“Francine?” I cringed at my redundant request for confirmation of identity. The sight in front of me shocked my sleepy brain into full alert. My hand tightened around the front door handle and I stared at the grievously injured woman in the hallway.
“Help me, please.” Her voice was hoarse as if she had been screaming. Her left eye was swollen shut and her face freshly bruised.
I could not read her expressions. My throat tightened with that realisation. My connection to other people depended on my world-renowned ability to read nonverbal cues. But Francine’s face was too damaged to allow much muscle movement. A cut on her cheek was still oozing blood, and she was bleeding from other places too. There were rust coloured splatters all over her clothes. I couldn’t see if it was from her injuries. Maybe it was her victims’. A shudder rolled down my spine.
When the insistent ringing of my doorbell had woken me at two in the morning, I had not expected to find the woman who had been avoiding me for two weeks on my doorstep. The exotic beauty I knew to be a computer genius, an exceptional hacker and an enthusiastic proponent for conspiracy theories was weaving, looking ready to lose consciousness. I had only ever seen her looking like a supermodel. The hunched-over figure at my doorstep did not resemble that at all.
“Please?” Her whispered plea brought my attention to her swollen lips.
“But you killed two people.” How could I let a killer into my home?
“It was in sel...” A gurgling cough punished her body and she reached out to me. Instinctively I recoiled, but she didn’t notice. Her breathing was becoming laboured and it didn’t take my three doctorate degrees to know that she needed medical attention.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” I stepped away from the door and opened it wider. “Come on in then.”
“Colin,” she wheezed as she staggered to my expensive sofas. I closed the door, made sure all five locks were secured in place and hurried over before she reached the living area. With an internal groan, I spread the beige mohair throw over the sofa and watched her lower herself in obvious agony. “Please get Colin here.”
“You of all people know that I can’t get a hold of him.” I had met Colin and Francine five months ago when working on an art crime case. My life had been in danger while investigating the murders of art students. Francine had proven herself to be an invaluable asset when she offered her computer hacking skills. Skills she used for a few government agencies.
Colin, on the other hand, was a criminal. He was an accomplished thief, infamous, and honourable. In that trying time five months ago he had proved himself to be one of the good guys – a concept I had learned from my boss. Not only was Colin a thief, but he was a thief who worked for Interpol. At last count only five people knew of his unconventional job. His cooperation with the law was something neither him nor the powers that be in Interpol wanted to be known. After working side by side with him, I had thought he was my friend, but he had disappeared out of my life a month after the case had closed. That had been four months ago.
At first I had thought he had to be working on some assignment, but after not being able to contact him on the number he had given me, I had become concerned. Three weeks ago I had asked Francine if she could track Colin with her computer skills. We had met only once after that before she too started avoiding my calls. All this rejection did not sit well with me.
“How am I supposed to get Colin here if I can’t reach him?” I asked.
“Send him a 911 text to the number you have. He’ll phone you.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Francine’s facial muscles tried to draw together into a pleading expression. “Please, Genevieve. We need him. Just send that text.”
Apart from my boss, Francine was the only one who called me Genevieve. Mostly, people called me Doctor Lenard. Three other people used different names for me, but that was in the past.
For a moment I studied her. As usual she was dressed in the best designer clothes, now torn and ruined by bloodstains. She favoured her left side and I wondered if she had been stabbed. There wasn’t a large bloodstain in that area, so it was most probably broken ribs. I had a lot of questions about her presence on my sofa. Including the suspicion that her injuries had something to do with her reason for avoiding me. Now she was telling me that we needed Colin. I balked at the ‘we’.
A pained groan and tears streaming from her swollen eyes drew me out of my thoughts and put me into action. I stomped to the kitchen, grabbed my smartphone off the counter and swiped the screen. Within three seconds I sent the text message and was staring at the little screen, waiting for Colin to call. My smartphone’s screen lit up and a silly ringtone filled my apartment. I swiped the screen.
“Jenny, what’s wrong?” Worry raised Colin’s voice from its usual deep rumble. Hearing his voice again for the first time in four months made me happy, sad and angry at the same time. But mostly angry.
“Francine killed two men.”
“She... wait... what?” He took a deep breath. “Is she with you?”
“Yes.” The more he spoke, the angrier I was becoming. It limited my social vocabulary.
“In your apartment?”
“I’m on my way.”
“I’ll phone the police.”
“No!” Again he took a breath audible enough for me to hear. “Let’s first hear what happened.”
“She killed two men, Colin. There is nothing more to it. She told me so herself. I should phone the police.” My words were clipped.
“Wait a moment.”
I heard some clicking noises and narrowed my eyes. Those noises not only came through the phone, but also from a window in the back of my apartment.
My lips tightened and I turned around. “I have a front door.”
“That you always lock.” Colin smiled as he walked to me in long strides. Something was not right. His usual confident walk seemed impeded in some way. Seeing him after such a long time overwhelmed me with all kinds of emotions which distracted me from my observations. “Hello, Jenny. Did you miss me?”
“You left me.” My lips were tight, my brows pulled together and my voice cold. “After all that irrational talk about friendship, you disappeared without a word.”
He studied me through narrowed eyes until I became uncomfortable. “I missed you too.”
My discomfort made me reach for a change of topic. I turned to the living area. “Francine is over there.”
Colin looked past me. The
muscles on his forehead lifted his eyebrows and his mouth went slack. Textbook example of shock. He rushed to the sofa and fell on his knees next to Francine.
“Oh, honey, what have they done to you?” He gently lifted a stray strand of hair from her bloody face. Without looking away from her, he addressed me. “Get some clean towels, Jenny.”
“All my towels are clean. Always.” I groaned at the thought of my designer white towels. There was no conceivable way I would ever use them again. Not after they were stained by someone else’s blood. With a sigh of resignation I got four soft, fluffy, brilliantly white hand towels.
“Who did this, Francine?” Colin asked.
“The hacker,” she wheezed. Her good eye was glazed over and her speech slurred. “Or his thugs... security compa... systems... they go... all the systems.”
I walked closer, feeling a distinct discomfort in my chest. It took a moment for me to realise the discomfort I was feeling was concern. I did not feel concern. Not usually. Concern was reserved for people we cared about. I had not known that I had grown to care for Francine. I handed the towels to Colin. “She doesn’t look good. We have to phone an ambulance.”
Francine jerked at my suggestion and Colin murmured reassurances to her. He gently dabbed at her face. “Francine, honey, I know someone at a private clinic. No one will even know you’re there.”
She shook her head and winced. “They’ll get me there. He got into the systems. He knows.”
“Why didn’t you come to me?”
“Genevieve needs to know, Colin. She’s everywhere on... he got the... systems.”
Everything in my being stilled. “What do I need to know? Who are you talking about? What systems?”
Colin was frowning at Francine’s strange statements, but didn’t answer me. His attention was on her. “The person I know at the clinic will register you under any name I give him. We can even register you there as a man, but you need to get medical attention.”
“I’ll be fine.” She had barely uttered the last word when another painful cough caused more tears to stream from her eyes. It took her a minute to catch her breath. “Okay, but I’ll only go if Genevieve goes with me.”
“What? No.” Distress tightened my throat and raised my voice. This was becoming too much for me. Francine appearing beaten up at my door in the dead of the night, Colin showing up three seconds after he contacted me for the first time in four months, and now Francine was insisting I accompany her to a hospital. “Why?”
“I trust you.”
“But you trust Colin. You’ve known him for longer. He’s also a criminal.” The words shot uncensored out of my mouth. I was distraught by the intensity of the compulsion not to go to a hospital.
For a moment it looked as if Francine had lost consciousness, but then she opened the eye that had not completely swollen shut. “Please, Genevieve. Just don’t let them take me.”
“Who? Let who take you?” I turned to Colin. “Who is she talking about?”
“I don’t know.” He gently pressed the towel against her still-oozing wound. “Get dressed. The clinic is not too far from here.”
“No. I’m not going.” None of the books on friendship I had recently read said anything about being supportive to the types of people in my living area. “She killed two people. It’s bad enough that I had you and Vinnie constantly in my life.”
“Why, thank you, Jenny.”
I didn’t understand why he would thank me, so I continued, “I’m not going to become an accomplice, after the fact, in people’s deaths.”
“They tried to kill me,” Francine said quietly. Colin and I looked at her in surprise. I had been sure she had lost consciousness.
“Who tried to kill you?”
“The hacker,” she said.
Francine had never told me exactly what it was that she did. All I knew was that it involved hacking and other computer-related activities. She had claimed that she worked for the good guys, but a small micro-expression had left some doubts in my mind.
My ignorance concerning all things information technology often made me feel paralysed in her company. Those times I would concentrate on reading her nonverbal cues. Like now. I narrowed my eyes, but it didn’t help me read her any better. Her face was simply too swollen for any natural muscle movements. “I don’t know if you’re telling me the truth.”
“I am...” Another cough stopped her mid-sentence. Her ragged breathing was worrying, but it was when her body slumped into my sofa that my chest tightened again. I was worried about a killer. Very worried.
“She needs a doctor now, Colin,” I said.
“We’ll take my car.” Colin stood up and again I noticed the difficulty in his movement. I wondered what had happened in the time he had been unreachable. He straightened, pulled out his smartphone and tapped the screen a few times before holding the device to his ear. “Francine’s been attacked. We’re here at Jenny’s. Yes. Sure.”
I watched Colin through narrowed eyes as he walked to my front door while talking to the other person. He unlocked the door and opened it. I recognised the voice before the large man dressed in fatigue pants and a black sweater stepped into my apartment. Vinnie.
I stormed to the front door, stopped in front of the two men and pointed an angry finger at them. “You left me. You both left me. Vinnie, I thought you were my friend. But you left me.”
My accusations brought remorse to both men’s faces. Vinnie looked in pain. He rocked on his feet as if wanting to move towards me. If I went by his behaviour before he had absconded, he wanted to pull me into one of his unsolicited hugs. I would not appreciate it. I was too angry.
He broke the silence, his gravelly voice regretful and his eyes sad. “Jen-girl, I’m so sorry. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the best decision.”
“What decision? Why did you have to make that decision?” I didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t like the feeling. Vinnie had entered my life at the same time as Colin and Francine. At first he had been my bodyguard, but later I had thought him a friend. He had left a month after Colin had cut off all contact. His last words to me had been reassurances that he would bring Colin back. “You told me that friends always wanted the best for each other. How was leaving me and then ignoring me for months the best for me? And who are you to make that decision?”
Vinnie flinched at my cold anger. “Jen-girl, we’ll explain.”
“Good idea.” Francine’s soft voice brought our attention back to the sofa. “Look at me. This could’ve been Genevieve. You should’ve told Genevieve.”
Vinnie gasped as Francine hugged her side and groaned. He rushed to the sofa.