Still Life with Wolves and Canvases

“Werewolf?”

Denis Sesma caught himself chuckling as he retied three small strips of leather on his horse’s saddle. This was not the first time that his traveling companion, Elizabeth “Betsy” Springer, had asked that question. Actually, it was more like the fifth time in the last two or three days, that the tall redhead had said the same thing.

The first time, Denis had grabbed for the pistol that hung from his saddle, only to hear his friend’s laughter coming from just behind him.

This whole “werewolf” thing was one of those “movie quotes” that Betsy seemed inordinately fond of repeating. Denis wasn’t all that sure just what “movies” were—other than they were something like theater. But he had a hard time grasping just exactly how.

He’d tried ignoring Betsy when she started spouting these lines, but there was one thing Denis had learned in the last five months since he’d met Elizabeth “Just call me Betsy” Springer in the offices of the Grantville Times: that was a nearly impossible task.

Betsy was a tall, thin girl with her shoulder-length red hair tied back in a pony tail, dressed in a red woolen work shirt and the blue trousers that Denis had learned were called “jeans.” Denis had been in Grantville for just over six months and was still not accustomed to seeing women wearing what were normally considered “men’s” clothes. His cousin Mirari had told him it was the Americans’ way of doing things, and that he’d better get used to it.

Without even turning toward her, Denis replied “There wolf, there castle.”

“You’re learning,” she said. At that moment, a wolf’s howl rang out. It could have been anywhere from fifty feet to five miles away; the heavy forest and mountains here in southern France tended to play tricks with sound.

“Now that was timing.” She looked in the direction the noise seemed to have come from. “I couldn’t have planned it better myself.”

“I’d be happy to take credit for it, but somehow I don’t think you’d believe I was responsible,” said Denis. “I think we had better find someplace protected to camp, or an inn. I am not fond of the idea of waking up and finding myself in the middle of a wolf pack.”

“I told you: wolves are more afraid of humans than we are of them,” Betsy said.

“Yes, but you also said that there are going to be a lot of wolf attacks in the next hundred years or so.”

“Werewolf attacks,” Betsy corrected.

“Wolf attacks,” Denis restated firmly. He cleared his throat and began to recite. “‘Over three thousand people were killed in France between 1580 and 1830 by wolves. And over a thousand of those were not rabid.’ That’s a statistic that they don’t mention in your Time Life Books: Mysteries of the Unexplained, I’ll wager.”

“You read that?” Betsy blinked. “But . . . ”

“You Americans were allowed to hunt animals,” Denis cut across her argument. “Your wolves learned to be afraid of humans. Here a wolf knows who the predator and who the prey is. And when his natural prey runs out—” He threw a sly glance up at her red hair. “—Red Riding Hood looks quite tasty.”

“Ha, ha. Very funny. I think I would prefer not to put wolf prey on my resume.” Betsy sounded less sure of herself than she had a moment earlier. “Remember, it was not exactly a fortune in expense money that old man Kindred gave us, so we might want to consider camping.”

A wolf howled again. The sound was closer this time. “If we can find an inn, it might be safer,” Denis said. “I have the distinct feeling that we are being followed.”

Betsy immediately turned in her saddle. Denis winced and shook his head as she made a grand show of studying the terrain behind them.

“I don’t see anyone,” she reported.

“Nor will you. Especially since you’ve just alerted whoever it was to the fact that we’re aware of them. Trust me, with some hunters there is no way you would see them if they were following you.”

“Did you see a signpost anywhere to give us some clue where we are?” she asked.

“No. Nothing since we passed the crossroads.”

“As long as there wasn’t anyone playing a fiddle there, we’re fine,” said Betsy. “This is where Rand McNally would be a big help.”

“Rand McNally? Who is that? A Scottish guide of some kind?”

“No, they’re maps. Sometimes it seemed like it took a year for my father to get one folded back properly,” Betsy said. “And he’d never let me do it. It always had to be folded back just the way it came.”

“Well, there is no reason not to respect the wishes of your father,” Denis deadpanned. “Until then, draw an X on the map and label it ‘Here be Dragons.'”

“Werewolves,” Betsy muttered.

“Those, too.”

“We could stop and ask for directions at the first farmhouse we come to,” she suggested.

Denis looked sideways at her. “One look at you and they will think we’re mad. And that will be before you even open your mouth.”

“So? Just tell them the truth. We’re looking for missing blacksmith apprentices.”

“Then they’ll know we’re mad for certain. After all, who would come all this way to find people that they aren’t related to and don’t even know? Should I leave out the part where we are on the road because you’re fleeing from your engagement to Sven?”

“I’m not engaged to him and his name was Albert, not Sven,” Betsy said. “And it was all a big cross-cultural misunderstanding.”

“The kind that can only happen after one too many pints of Thuringen Gardens’ best . . . ” Denis trailed off and shook his head. “I’m not the one that you should be explaining things to; more like Sven . . . excuse me, Albert. I don’t see why you didn’t just let him ask your father’s permission for your hand. Surely things would have been straightened out then.”

“You don’t know my dad like I do.” Betsy rolled her eyes. “I love him, but he’s hopeless. Besides, Albert should have figured things out by this point.”

“And if he hasn’t?”

“I’ll just tell him that I eloped with you.” Betsy batted her eyes at him.

“God save me!”

Another wolf howled off to the west; the sound was much closer than before.

“You may be right about us getting off the road.” Betsy nodded in concession.

Denis pointed toward a small thatched hut that was set back from the road. It was a sturdy looking place with earth and wood walls. Its presence was masked by the trees and brush so that it was easy to miss if you weren’t looking directly at it; though it looked like no one had lived there for many years.

“Great,” muttered Betsy. “Just great, first werewolves and now this.”

****

The hut was old; the air inside heavy with dust, its former owners long since gone. There were only two rooms, one that had served as kitchen, living and sleeping area for the residents, while the other had been for storage and possibly a pen for small animals.

This was not the first place that Denis had seen in this condition; he was fairly sure it wouldn’t be the last. While war might have stayed away from this part of France for several years, the conflicts between Huguenot and Catholic were going strong. Any kind of unrest usually meant that bandits would come out to play and there were times when you couldn’t tell them apart from the latest local authorities.

“I wish this place were big enough to bring the horses in with us,” Betsy said. “If there are wolves around here I don’t want to leave them out as a temptation.”

The two horses they were riding were ancient beasts, only one or two steps removed from plow horses or someone’s next meal. “Tempting morsel” would not be a description Denis would have used for either animal.

“Don’t worry; I tethered them on the other side of this wall. If anyone or anything shows up they should make enough noise to alert us,” he said.

“And we can’t even have a fire. Wonderful.”

Denis would have liked a fire as much as Betsy. It might be almost May, but there was still a chill in the air. A fire would scare away wolves, but it could also be a beacon to whoever might be following them, if there was actually someone out there in the darkness.

Betsy pulled herself to her feet and went into the hut’s other room, where they had stored the saddles and other tack.

“Denis, come here a minute,” said Betsy in a strange tone of voice.

Picking up his pistol, Denis went through the door in a half dozen steps. Betsy was kneeling down near a stack of refuse next to the wall.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Look at these. I almost tripped over them in the dark.”

A heavy blanket had been pushed to one side and there were a good dozen rolls of canvas bundled together and piled one on top of each other. Betsy sat back on her heels and held the topmost roll out for Denis’ inspection.

His questing fingers brushed the surface, enticing memories of the dried oil paint, the rough feel of canvas to the touch, and the hand of his old master on his shoulder as he worked on an under painting.

“Paintings? Who in their right mind would store paintings out here in the woods?” he asked.

“A good question. Perhaps you can ask my captain. But for now, if the two of you want to live long enough see the sun come up again, I suggest that you not move,” a strange voice said.

****

“Papers! My Great Aunt Lilibeth has papers! It just depends on whether or not I believe your papers are real. And even if they are real, whether or not they actually belong to the two of you.”

Denis looked around the room that was serving as the office for Captain Marcus Pohl. It was certainly not as opulent as he would expect to see occupied by someone who commanded the dragoons that served the bishop of Mende. But he was a military man, and these rooms definitely had the plain, Spartan look that went with that profession.

The region that governed Gévaudan, known as Mende, was at the crossroads of several major pilgrimage routes. Since bandits loved to prey on pilgrims, Pohl and his dragoons found much to keep them occupied.

“I’ve explained who we are: my name is Denis Sesma, and my companion is Elizabeth Springer,” said Denis. “We work as writers for the Grantville Times. Why have we been arrested?”

“You haven’t been arrested, just brought in for a friendly little chat. When my men find strangers lurking in the forest, I start asking questions about why they are there and who they are,” said Pohl. “And I keep asking them until I am satisfied with the answers I receive.”

When they had been brought before the captain, he studiously ignored them for a half an hour as he continued to sharpen a formidable looking sword. Once he was satisfied with his work, the blade had been resheathed and now lay on the desk in front of him. Once he looked at Denis and Betsy his scowl seemed to indicate that he knew that they were trouble, and wanted very little to do with them before beginning his questions.

“I . . . ” Betsy stood up, a look of irritation on her face.

Denis automatically put a hand to Betsy’s arm to stop the sarcastic reply that he knew she was about to make.

“Judging by your manner of dress, you are Americans.”

“Actually, I’m not American. I’m part Belgian and part Basque,” Denis started to explain. This was the third time he had told the story since the three dragoons had found the two of them in the hut. “A handful of blacksmith’s apprentices who worked for an American company vanished in this region while transporting raw goods and our editor thought that it might be a good story.”

“And you’ve come all this way for a newspaper story?” Pohl shook his head. “Why?”

“Because the last reports of them were in Gévaudan,” Betsy cut across Denis’ explanation. “And there have been and will be reports of a lot of wolf killings in this area.”

Pohl raised an eyebrow at that. “Wolves have been killing in this area for years. There have been rumors of wolves and men who turned into wolves all over this part of France for decades. What’s different now?”

“Nothing, unless you happen to be a crazy, red-haired conspiracy theorist,” Denis muttered.

The dragoon captain nodded. With a wave of his whetstone, he pointed at the rolls of canvas on top of their bags. “Very well then, explain that. My men said that you had those with you.”

“We found them in the shack we were sheltering in,” Betsy said. “Think about it, genius. Does our baggage have room for this stuff? Where are the bags that we carried it all in? Those nags we were riding had the extra space on their saddles for all of this?”

Elizabeth,” Denis said. “It might not be the smartest idea to offend someone who could have us killed and not have to worry about the paperwork.”

Betsy went over to the canvas rolls, and untied the topmost one with fingers that shook in anger. Then she held it up for Pohl to see. “Caravaggio, if I’m not mistaken,” she said.

Denis blinked at that. “What? Caravaggio? Let me see.”

“It is,” Betsy insisted. “It’s called Fortune Teller. The subject is a gypsy girl.”

Denis said, “I remember seeing it. It caused quite a stir in the art world. My old master had me study it.” He gave Betsy an apprising look. “How do you know this?”

Betsy rolled her eyes. “I took a lot of art classes before the Ring of Fire. I switched to geology after that. My father wanted me to have a real career instead of knowing just enough to ask if you want fries with your burgers. Besides, I went through a phase where I thought that I couldn’t possibly be related to the rest of my family. I was hoping I was a gypsy left on my parents’ doorstep. So I studied everything about gypsies that I could get my hands on. That way when my real family came back for me, I would be ready.”

Pohl looked at her, arching his eyebrows in surprise. “You wanted to be taken by gypsies?”

“Captain, on this trust me. Once you get to know her, that will make complete sense,” Denis said. He reached for the next canvas in the roll, and surveyed the panting of seven men bowling. “I don’t recognize this one.”

Game of Skittles, by Jacob Duck,” Betsy said. “I think it is supposed to be painted sometime in the next year. These are all Baroque paintings.”

“They look fine to me, nothing seems broken,” Denis said.

“That’s Baroque, not broken. Who’s on first?” Betsy said. “That’s what art teachers call art from this time period when they want to lump it all together.”

It was Denis’ turn to scoff. “I’ve seen books of your up-time artwork. Christo? Thomas Moore? If you ask me, modern art can stay in the future where it belongs. I don’t understand how your Thomas Kinkade can be known as the painter of light when your people knew of Rembrandt.”

“I think that’s a marketing thing . . . ” Betsy began to unroll a second bundle of canvases; there were a dozen bound tightly together. Her eyes went wide as she lifted the corners of first one and then another.

“The ones in this bundle are exactly the same as in the first one,” she said, pursing her lips. “I’m going to make a bet that there are more of the same in the other batch. They are all Baroque. I think that whoever did these is good. Very good.”

Denis groaned. “Copies! I was afraid of that. I know for a fact that the original Caravaggio is elsewhere.”

“Since there are more than one, I don’t think I am going to go out on a limb to say that we’re looking at more than just the copies that art students make,” said Pohl.

Denis and Betsy both jumped, and looked at each other guiltily. In the excitement of their investigation, they had forgotten about the captain. Now they looked at the man. In the space of just a few words he had gone from a menacing force ready to lock them up to someone sharing the same experience.

“You know about that system?” asked Denis. He remembered how he had sweated blood over copying any number of works by Rubens and the Carracci brothers. The only comment he would usually get from his late master was a growl and to have him point out where he had gone wrong.

“I’m not a total idiot who only knows that you put the pointy end of a sword into people,” said Pohl. “My nephew is apprenticed to Jusepe de Ribera, and in exchange for giving him patronage, I get long detailed letters from him telling me all he has learned.”

“Ribera? He was one of my old master’s pupils.”

“You studied with Francisco Ribalta? I heard of his passing,” said Pohl.

“Yes. Unfortunately, I’m just not as talented as Ribera,” said Denis. “After Master Ribalta’s passing, I could find no other master to take me on. Thankfully, my cousin found me work as an illustrator for the Grantville Times.”

Pohl walked over to where Betsy was kneeling and bent down next to her. “M’lady, if I may?”

“Of course, Captain.” Betsy cast a quick glance over to Denis who simply shrugged. It wasn’t as if either of them were in any position to stop the dragoon captain from doing what he wanted.

The captain pulled out one of the canvases.

“I know that one as well,” said Betsy. “Landscape with Apollo and Mercury. I don’t remember the artist’s name, but I know the painting. I also am fairly certain that it won’t be painted for at least another ten or twenty years.”

Pohl looked at her oddly. “I don’t really understand what is going on, but I do know one thing. I have seen this painting before, and within the last few days.”

“Where?” asked Betsy.

“At the home of His Eminence, the bishop. He was showing off his latest acquisition.”

****

Betsy held her compact mirror out at arm’s length, trying to use the small surface to get an accurate picture of how she looked in the dress Captain Pohl had provided.

Hours ago, the captain had escorted them to a building located near the dragoon barracks, and requested that Betsy disguise herself as a member of the bourgeoisie while he made arrangements for her to meet with the art dealer who had sold the bishop the possibly forged painting.

Now she wore a gown that was edged in lace with a double layer collar. Betsy stuck her tongue out at her reflection as she dressed, but once or twice Denis did catch her smiling and preening a little, when she didn’t think he was looking.

Her American jeans, along with the rest of her up-timer clothing, had vanished into their luggage.

“Personally, I think you look good, like a lady,” said Denis. “Though that ponytail of yours, well . . . .”

“I feel like the time I dressed up as a Pilgrim girl for Thanksgiving.”

“You’re wearing far too much lace to look like the up-time idea of a Puritan,” Denis said. “Although, if we fix your hair correctly, we may be able to convince someone that you are sideways royalty, or at least connected to some up-and-coming merchant house.”

Betsy reached up behind her and pulled the rubber band off her pony tail, then shook her head to let her hair spread out. Then she curled the topmost layer into a bun, and let the rest hang in long, unruly curls. She stared at the mirror for a long moment, twisting her head to the right and left before muttering, “It still needs something.”

With that, she turned away from him and her hands disappeared under the layers of her dress. A moment or two later, she held up a set of diamond earrings; something that Denis had never seen her wear and had not even known she had with her. She clipped them to her ears.

Pohl came walking into the room and inspected Betsy. She smiled, turned around for him and then curtsied. Denis raised one eyebrow. That was something that he had never seen Betsy do before, though it didn’t surprise him that she knew how. Things had reached the point between the two of them that little she could do would surprise him.

“These are valuable?” Pohl asked, as his hand brushed the side of Betsy’s face lightly touching the earrings

“Yeah, they are,” Betsy said.

Another of Betsy’s favorite expressions sprang to Denis’ mind. “Lucy? You gotta lotta ‘splainin’ to do,” Denis said. “Where did those come from? You don’t make enough to buy diamonds. Besides, do you know how dangerous it is to be carrying things like that with you through the countryside?”

“Your friend is correct, m’lady,” said Pohl. “Within a half mile of these barracks I could find a couple of dozen cutthroats who would be willing slit your throat, not to mention rape you, for these.”

“That’s why I had them hidden in my bra.” Betsy rolled her eyes. “And they are mine. They belonged to my grandma; she left them to me. Usually I keep them in the family safety deposit box but I didn’t want to take a chance that Albert might convince my father to give permission for him to marry me, and then have Dad want to use them as a dowry gift.”

Denis rolled his eyes.

“You know,” chuckled Pohl. “This time I’m not going to ask for an explanation. It would just make things too confusing.”

****

“It is my pleasure to meet you, Mademoiselle.”

The art dealer’s name was Justin Quinniaro, and he lived in an opulent manor house just outside of Mende. Captain Pohl had brought a stylish coach to transport her to the place. Where he had procured it, Betsy hadn’t asked; she’d learned that although as a journalist it was her job to ask questions, every now and then it was better to just sit back and say nothing.

Betsy disliked Quinniaro at first sight. She had seen his type before; tall and dark in a mafia kind of way, insufferably sure of himself . . . the kind who either ended up buried in a work cube somewhere or doing time in a federal country club prison.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Monsieur Quinniaro. Your French is good, but I detect a hint of an Italian accent,” she said.

“You have a good ear, milady. My family is from Venice, though I have not been back for a few years.”

The walls in the living room of Quinniaro’s residence were awash in candlelight and shadows. Three paintings were placed at intervals on one wall. Betsy recognized one of them as another copy of Landscape with Apollo and Mercury. A masterful rendition and identical to the three others she had seen in the rolled up canvases that were back in the dragoon barracks.

“If you will excuse me, Monsieur Quinniaro, there is a small matter that I must attend to,” said Pohl. “I’m sure that it won’t take me more than a few minutes to deal with. One of my men will be close by, should he be needed.” Although he looked at Quinnaro as he said this, Betsy knew that his words were for her benefit.

Pohl was gone with that, not waiting for a word from Quinniaro. The Italian looked at Betsy with an air of respect.

“I would be fascinated to know how you got that stick-in-the-mud to accept a bribe. I’ve been trying for months,” he said.

“Let us just say that it didn’t cost me a cent,” said Betsy, smiling her most seductive smile. “But let’s get down to business; he won’t be gone that long. First: officially I am not here, I have never been here and this conversation is most definitely not taking place. Is that understood?”

“Of course. Should the question ever come up, I have been hunting with several of my good friends, in the forest to the south. I understand there have been reports of wolves. Dangerous filthy beasts,” said Quinniaro.

“My brother and I are acquiring items for our family’s new estates in the colonies; a place that, quite frankly, I find appalling to even consider. However, our parents have compelling reasons for the relocation. Thus, I suppose we shall have to endure for a few years,” said Betsy with a melodramatic sigh. She watched the man carefully. There were reactions to her words, small signs that her poker-playing cousins would have been proud that she noticed; but, for the most part, Quinniaro kept his face unmoving.

“Good reasons? I would suspect those reasons might be political, but far be it from me to inquire into another’s business,” he said.

“Unless it might profit you,” Betsy said. “And trust me, if you can supply what I need, you will make a profit. I require . . . shall we say . . . transportable investments. I’m not particularly interested in how you acquire them. It’s not as if anyone would ask too many questions in the colonies. I was thinking perhaps artwork. Caravaggio, Duck, Carracci or even older works, such as the type made by the contemporaries of Titian and Durer, if they can be had for a decent price.”

Quinniaro sat for a long time before speaking, his eyes not moving off of Betsy. She was reminded of the first time she had worn a bikini out at the lake. The boys’ reaction was nice at first, but after a bit began to feel creepy.

“You must understand, I am simply a businessman. While it is true I do come across art work from time to time, I can make no promises that I would be able to find any such items for you at this moment,” he said.

“Well, that’s a pity.” From inside her sleeve Betsy produced a small leather bag of coins. “I was going to leave this as earnest money to prove that I am prepared to pay for what I want without explanation. But since you can’t provide what I need, I suppose I will have to look elsewhere.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t find what you were looking for.” Quinniaro’s eyes darted to the corner of the room as he spoke, an action that Betsy noted for later. “I believe that an associate who specializes in acquiring such things may be presently under my roof. If you will wait but a moment, Mademoiselle, I can consult him.”

As soon as Quinniaro stepped from the room, Betsy looked over to the corner where he had glanced. An ornate trunk caught her attention. She jumped from her chair and hurried over to it. Although it was locked, that was no match for one of Betsy’s hairpins. Inside was a hardbound book with the Grantville Public Library card catalog designation.

“Hello? You definitely didn’t come from France.” Betsy looked up at the door nervously. She figured that she didn’t have much time. Hastily, she opened the book, and tore the title page from the inside. Then she replaced the tome before jamming the lid back in place.

She had just taken her seat again when Quinniaro returned. “I believe that I may have access to some of what we discussed.” The smile on his face exuded the sort of calm confidence that Betsy had always detested.

“Very well. I will be in the area for a few more days. Let Captain Pohl know when we have business to conduct,” she said.

****

“So, do you believe us now?” said Denis.

“I trust no one, and I believe only what I see,” answered Pohl as he knelt on the ground, eying a set of horse’s hoof prints. He’d said the same thing when Betsy had handed him the page she had liberated from Quinniaro.

“It’s the title page from a book on Baroque art. It shows work that has been painted by this point and some that will be produced over the next few decades. I would have brought the whole thing out with me if I thought I could have stuffed it down my bra. Overall, I would say a book of this nature makes quite a handy bit of source material for forgers. So do you believe your own eyes now?”

Pohl shrugged. “I will concede that Monsieur Quinniaro’s behavior is most suspicious. And now, Mademoiselle, I must ask that you and your intended take your places behind my men where it is safe. One of my scouts reports that Quinniaro went to a small cottage not far from here.”

“Her . . . intended?” Denis jerked back.

Pohl winked at him. “I’m starting to understand how the lady thinks. Trust me on this, Monsieur Sesma. You may not realize it, but you are a doomed man.”

Denis glanced over at Betsy and was surprised to see that her face was almost as red as her hair. With a laugh, the dragoon captain mounted his horse, and signaled for the dozen men who had been waiting quietly in the woods to follow him.

Betsy coughed. “Funny guy.”

“Hilarious,” Denis said

“Don’t get any ideas,” she said.

Denis caught a whiff of something that he thought might be perfume when she slid uncomfortably close to him as he helped her onto her horse. There hadn’t been time to retrieve Betsy’s “regular clothes,” so she was forced to ride like many of the fine ladies Denis had seen, side saddle.

Once the others had passed by, Denis and Betsy fell in behind them as they had been instructed. It took half an hour for them to reach the small —although apparently Pohl’s idea of a small cottage and Denis’ were radically different. The outbuildings were rather dilapidated, but the main house was large and definitely looked livable. Denis could see light coming through several of the windows.

Denis and Betsy rode up beside Pohl who was conferring with a small man dressed in brown that neither of them had seen before.

“My associate here says that Monsieur Quinniaro went inside; he is certain that there are others there with him,” said Pohl.

“A problem?” asked Betsy.

“Possibly,” said Pohl. “Only one way to find out. You two stay here. In case of a fight, I don’t want you injured. Especially you, Mademoiselle Springer.”

“I can handle myself in a fight,” snapped Betsy.

“Perhaps you can.” He nodded. “But the dress is borrowed and I don’t want to have to pay for a seamstress to repair it should it be damaged.”

As shadows, the dragoons advanced on the entrances to the house. There was the sound of shattering wood and breaking glass, followed by silence. A few minutes later, a lanky young man of perhaps fifteen or sixteen years came out of the house and brought word that Captain Pohl thought it was safe for them to join him inside.

“That was quick,” said Betsy

Denis just shook his head at her words. He was no soldier but he had learned that most fights, whether they were a major battle or a one-on-one run-in with a thief, were usually over quickly. Later, when you were painting the picture to honor the skirmish or retelling the story over the fifth or six mug of beer, the events were always inflated to the level of a high adventure.

Denis hadn’t gone more than four or five steps through the front door before the smell of turpentine hit him. It was thick and pungent; causing him to cover his nose even as memories of his days spent in his master’s workshop assailed him.

“I’m beginning to think that the Mademoiselle and you were correct,” said Pohl as he stepped through a door at the far end of the room.

There were several dozen easels spread about the room, each with a canvas stretched out to work on. In the dim light from candles it was hard to see just what the pictures were, but Denis could make a few guesses.

“So where are the artists?” asked Betsy.

Pohl gestured for Betsy and Denis to follow him back into the next room. Crouching on the floor were five men, their hands tied behind them. Their faces showed the evidence of close-quarters fighting with the dragoons who stood nearby.

“I haven’t had a chance to question them, but I think they will be willing to explain what is going on and who their ‘patron’ might be,” Pohl said.

“So where is Quinniaro?” asked Denis. “These men are obviously just the hired help. I’m willing to bet that they are apprentices whose masters didn’t think they were up to snuff.”

“Apprentice!” one of the men on the floor yelled in heavily accented German. “I am no apprentice. I am a master at what I do. I have done nothing wrong!”

Denis looked at several paintings stacked to one side. A compelling portrait that seemed to show the painter Diego Velazquez standing before a canvas while a princess, two ladies in waiting, chaperones, a dog and two dwarves entertained themselves next to him. Behind the painter hung a painting of a very much older-looking Philip IV and a woman who Denis didn’t recognize as the queen of Spain.

He looked to Betsy in question.

Las Meninas. That has to be for practice, there is no way they could explain that one, much less sell it.” Then she made a wave of dismissal. “I’ll loan you my fine arts textbook to explain who most of those people are.”

Denis rubbed his chin for a moment, then picked up a brush and made a series of strokes forming a shape in the lower right-hand corner.

“It needed something,” he said looking at the man on the floor.

“Let’s get back to the barracks,” said Pohl.

“Then far be it from me to delay that,” said Quinniaro, who came out of a nearby closet and grabbed Betsy around the shoulders with one arm. He yanked her up against him and stepped backwards. In his other hand he held a cocked pistol, the barrel only inches from her face.

“You must know that you cannot escape,” said Pohl, taking a step toward the man.

“Oh, I think I will, my dear Captain Pohl. I’ve seen the way you and that idiot look at this girl. I don’t think you want to see her brains spread all over this charming little retreat,” said Quinniaro.

“If you harm her I will track you down, no matter where you go,” said Denis.

Quinniaro, shook his head and chuckled, twisting to look over his shoulder. The inattention was all the invitation that Betsy needed. She threw herself backwards against him. The move was unexpected enough to throw them both off balance and cause him to loosen his grip around her. She pulled away, twisted and rammed her knee into his crotch.

“Aaaahhh,” he screamed, the pistol dropping out of his hand. Betsy slammed her elbow up and into his throat. The pain drove Quinniaro to his knees in front of her.

“This dress is on loan,” she said. “If you’ve caused me to tear it, Captain Pohl will be most unhappy.”

****

Denis dropped a couple of pieces of wood into the campfire. The flames flared brightly orange, dancing high into the air for a moment before settling back into a comfortable yellow glow. “You realize that Captain Pohl would have been quite happy to have us stay. Or at least you . . . ”

Betsy’s head shot up from the other side of the campfire. “Don’t you start in on that again! I had enough of that kind of thing from Albert back home.”

“All right, all right.” Denis laughed, turned to the saddle bags next to him and dug around inside of it until he found two wrapped packages. He passed one of them to Betsy then turned his attention to the remaining one.

Inside the cloth was a thick piece of bread and a reasonably fresh looking apple. At least that’s what it looked like. Denis had been hungry too many times in his life to be that picky about his food. Besides, this and some of their other supplies had come from the bishop’s kitchen, so it should pass muster. That, plus the wine that had been a parting gift from Captain Pohl, would serve to make a passable meal.

“Do you think that Quinniaro is going to hang?” Betsy asked after several bites.

“For forgery? I seriously doubt it,” said Denis. “You can find bad copies of almost any painting on the streets of Amsterdam. Quinniaro should be more afraid that his customers, who thought they were buying originals, will find out what he did.”

“Did you see the look on the bishop’s face when he saw so many copies of the same painting that Quinniaro had sold him?” Becky snorted. “I thought he was going to explode. Somehow I doubt that our Italian friend will be seeing the outside of the dungeon for a long time.”

The bishop had also sworn both of them to secrecy regarding his involvement, saying it was a matter of the church’s honor, i.e. he didn’t want anyone to know he had been fooled by a copy.

Denis leaned back against the fallen tree trunk and stared up at the sky. A gibbous moon looked down on them, and the stars were spread out like a blanket. Right now things felt rather good and sharing this quiet time with Betsy was nice, as well.

“Of course,” he said finally, “we still haven’t found any trace of those missing blacksmith’s apprentices. That is the story that Kindred sent us out here to get. Besides keeping you apart from Albert.”

Betsy glared at Denis. For a moment he expected her to throw something at him but she didn’t, instead, a smile slowly broke across her face. “The less said about Albert, the better. As for our wayward apprentices, one of the dragoons said that a few weeks ago he saw a couple of guys who matched their description sitting in a tavern and drinking through a windfall. I’ll bet if we ask around, we’ll probably find that they sold their master’s raw goods and drank away their profits. Not much of a story there. But I do have an idea that might just satisfy old man Kindred.”

“Would you care to enlighten your traveling companion?” asked Denis. “Or do I have to guess?”

“Simple. I’ll just write up a story about the forgery for the Inquisitor. We’ll spin it differently, so that way the bishop won’t get his cassock in a bunch. In our version, a group of werewolves was operating the forgery ring, killing off anyone who discovered their secret. You supply some very nice woodcuts and that will keep Kindred happy with us.”

Denis began to laugh, rocking back and forth. “You have an evil mind, woman.”

“Thank you,” Betsy said with a grin. “I do my best.”

Just then a wolf’s howl echoed through the forest from the south.

“Werewolf?” asked Denis.

“There wolf,” replied Betsy.

****

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About Bradley Sinor

Bradley H. Sinor has seen his short stories published in numerous science fiction, fantasy and horror anthologies such as The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tales of the Shadowmen, Volume 6 Grand Guignol, Ring of Fire II and the Grantville Gazette. Three collections of his short fiction have been released by Yard Dog Press, Dark and Stormy Nights, In The Shadows, and Playing with Secrets (along with stories by his wife Sue Sinor.) His newest collection of stories, Echoes From the Darkness, is from Arctic Wolf Press. His non-fiction work has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies.