I switched on my wireless headset so I could pace the room during the call. I held a dry-erase marker in one hand, an eraser in the other, and I would stop in front of the white board every once in awhile to jot down a note or two or figure a calculation.
“My team just isn’t making the progress that they should,” Bill whined. “The current administration is trying to force NASA into crazy half-assed projects with deadlines we didn’t set for ourselves, so this ‘mission’ is lagging behind and I’m pissed as hell. I’m two years from retirement, and I want to get this accomplished. Please tell me that you can help.”
“I’m working on it,” I assured him.
“Kamlesh, how is your team holding up under the new directives?” Bill asked.
“Not good, Bill. Morale is low. We’re seeking contractors to fill gaps left by people leaving the program. Urania, do you want to join us?”
“I’ve got my hands full with this project at the moment, but might give you a call in a few weeks.”
“I will hold you to it,” Kamlesh replied.
“Hey…this is my call. Let’s get back to it,” Bill scolded. “Roger, is everything okay on your end? You up to speed?”
I could hear a sigh. I rolled my eyes at Bill. Roger’s work was legendary, and Bill knew that.
“I’m on target,” Roger stated.
“Okay. All I want to know is…will we beat Broussard’s team at Oak Ridge? I don’t want to end up with egg on my face,” Bill said with a rush of breath.
“You should be egg free,” I replied. “We’re close. Before you know it, you’ll be awash in gold with all of the awards you’ll be winning.”
I added another calculation to the board. As I was writing, I listened to the men chattering on, but my mind drifted.
The crooked gold frame.
My mind leapt at the connection. I disconnected the call without warning, leaving Bill’s words to trail off in the ether. I untangled myself from the headset and ran to the gallery.
“Adrian?!” I called as I threw the door open.
Not hearing a response, I ran to take a closer look at the picture I’d adjusted earlier.
My heart sank as the recognition flooded my mind.
Someone stole my painting and replaced it with a forgery.
“ADRIAN!!!!” I screamed.
I raced from picture to beloved picture. Forgery. Forgery. Forgery.
My stomach threatened to revolt. My legs gave out and I sank to the floor. My heart hammered in my chest and I could barely catch my breath.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of light. Adrian’s paint-covered phone was on the floor near an empty easel. A brush full of ochre rested nearby. Where was Adrian?
I picked his phone and swiped. All of the forged paintings were there on his phone. He’d taken photos of every single one and then forged them.
Oh gods, how will I get them back?
What will I do?
I can’t let the family know.
Tears of anger fell from my eyes and rolled down my flushed cheeks.
Damn——–. My mind rattled through an entire string of totally unsavory cuss words.
I can’t just sit here and cry.
I have to get them back.
I ran back to my office and opened the laptop and security app. I pulled up camera footage for the past couple of hours and scrolled backward to see when Adrian left.
A dark form appeared on camera entering the gallery. It was not Adrian. I stopped the footage, rewound, watched again, and realized it was the man who’d approached Adrian on the street. The man startled Adrian, then stepped around the easel and injected him with something. Another man rushed in and the two carried Adrian toward the service elevator.
Holy hell…why didn’t I use Ares for security?
What am I going to do?