Have you ever met someone whose upbringing was unusual, to say the least? Theo West is one such man.
The Voynich Affair Chapter 12
Late the next morning, after leisurely baths in their separate rooms and breakfast together in the charming morning room of the hotel, West explained that the Seine wound like a snake toward the port town of Le Havre, and in one of the oxbows just west of Rouen nestled a green space called the Forest of Roumare. He was eager to visit and try to find a spot he remembered, with a large standing stone left over from prehistoric times. They could eat lunch there, and then return for a visit to the famous Horloge, a Renaissance clock in the old town, or perhaps the medical museum housed in the former home of Gustav Flaubert.
West went out to rent a scooter, and brought back a helmet for her along with a cheap duffel bag and a thin mylar picnic blanket he’d been able to borrow from the scooter dealer. The leftovers from their impromptu meal the night before went into the duffel, along with some bottles of water. She straddled the seat, put her arms around West —she still had trouble thinking of him as Theo— and they sped off through the streets of Rouen, headed for the forest.
After some poking around, West found the trail he remembered, and they parked the scooter, hiking into the woods. Lynn wore her capris with the same lowtop sneakers she’d used for sightseeing in Rouen, and hoped there were no snakes. Behind him, she marveled at how gracefully he moved for such a big man, and found herself fantasizing about stroking his denim-clad rear end. After about fifteen minutes, they located the stone, a rough-hewn, rectangular monolith that stood alone in the forest, surrounded by oaks. Lynn was thankful that the underbrush was minimal. This forest was very unlike the wild spaces she remembered from her childhood in Louisiana, where lush growing things filled the understory, and menacing creatures of every kind were always near. Here, there was only a pert red squirrel, scolding them from an oak branch, and a few birds calling to one another. They spread the mylar blanket beside the monolith and stretched out side by side.
“Tell me about the key.”
He didn’t answer for a moment. “The first thing you have to understand is that my father was a thief.”
What an odd revelation. “You mean a thief thief? Like a jewel thief or a bank robber?”
“Yes, like that. By the way, I’d much prefer it if you didn’t share what you know about me with anyone else. I value my privacy… very highly.”
No doubt. But aloud she said, “Okay.”
“Have you ever heard of the Tucker Cross?”
“I don’t think so… wait a minute, is it something to do with Bermuda?”
“Yes, it was salvaged from a seventeenth-century Spanish shipwreck, the San Antonio. A gold cross encrusted with emeralds. In 1975, it was stolen just as the Bermuda Maritime Museum was about to be opened by the Queen, with the cross as the main attraction. Nobody ever solved the crime.”
“Your father took it?”
“Yes. He was also involved with a rather high profile bank robbery in Chicago in 1977, when a million dollars mysteriously disappeared from a vault. But most of his jobs weren’t reported to the public. He targeted wealthy collectors and appropriated their art or jewels, often replacing them with fakes. He usually worked with a partner, a grifter who gained the confidence of the marks and gathered information.”
“Is West your real name?”
He laughed a little. “Yes, it’s my legal name. Is it my original name? No. I’m scarcely even certain what that was. We changed it so often. And we moved from one country to another. The longest we stayed anywhere was in New York, from the time I was born until I was around eight. Theophilus and Clarence are my birth names, though. Nobody would choose those for himself,” he added dryly.
Could he possibly be telling the truth? It would certainly explain why he’s such a loner. International art and jewel thieves did exist, of course. She supposed they must have families. And she had to admit that one met the most amazing people in New York. She remembered going to the Café Carlyle with Laura to see a cabaret show one holiday weekend. The tiny room was tightly packed with small tables, and the people seated in their immediate vicinity included a man who had climbed both Everest and K2, an elderly man who had been a young assistant prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, and a female performer with the Cirque du Soleil.
“When my father heard about the Voynich pages that Mazarin owned, he conceived the idea of obtaining them for my mother,” said West. “I don’t know all the details, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, he arrived in Bois Guilbert and fell in love at first sight with Mazarin’s wife. For the first time, he insisted on playing the grifter instead of handling the technical side of things and staying out of sight, as he normally did. Mme. Mazarin must have fallen for him too, since she allowed him to make a duplicate of the key. The necklace you saw on Mazarin’s mother once belonged to his wife. Mazarin cherished an absurd pet theory about the cipher at that time, and believed he had solved it. The writing on the haft is supposedly the Voynichese word for “love,” and he had the key mounted in the necklace for her to wear. It lifts out whenever they need to open the case. But something went wrong while my father was there, and the plans for the theft were abandoned. Before he died, he gave me the key and explained what it was.”
“And you’ve been waiting for a chance to see the pages ever since. Did he tell you what went wrong with his plans?”
“No, but I have a suspicion that he allowed his personal feelings to cloud his judgment.” He hesitated, and then said, “Three weeks after my father left Bois Guilbert, Madame Mazarin disappeared. Her body has never been found, but I’m fairly certain Mazarin killed her in a rage, after finding that she was involved with her lover in a plot to steal his manuscript leaves.”
As this sank in, Lynn’s body shuddered and a feeling of sick fear ran through her. Mazarin was far more dangerous than she’d realized. No wonder West was insistent about not letting me out of his sight.
“That is truly horrifying,” she managed to say. She could see that the motives for West’s action regarding the manuscript were complicated. Had he done it to keep some promise to his father? To finish his mother’s work? Or simply because he himself was obsessed with the manuscript?
“And what about you?” she asked. “Did you want to follow in your father’s footsteps?”
“Of course. I worshiped him. He taught me a few things he thought were important for anyone to know, about locks and security measures. But he refused to teach me the core skills— how to plan jobs, scale walls, enter buildings, move through a room. I got a couple of his partners to show me more, but I never actually worked a job. They said I should be the grifter because… because women would go for me, and told me my body was too large to make a good technician. My father was the one who wanted me to be a doctor. He was very insistent.”
West turned his head to face her, and her heart nearly broke at the look on his face. It was the look of a boy who wants desperately to impress his father, and fails. “It wasn’t right for me. I quit the profession, more or less, and became a dealer in antiquarian books. I specialized in medical texts, herbals, scientific books, and achieved a certain level of success. I did graduate work at CUNY and published, a little.”
“And now you work at the Hopkins Collection.”
“Yes. That’s my story. You must think I’m mad.” Suddenly he sat up against the standing stone and leaned over her. He trailed his fingers slowly over her chest and along the outer edges of her breasts, then touched the buttons of her white blouse. “Can I take this off you?” he said.
“Will anyone come this way?”
“Possible, but unlikely. This trail isn’t used much.” She weighed the decision for a moment, and then lifted her back off the ground so he could remove her shirt and unhook her bra. She felt a little tense, now that her breasts were on show in broad daylight. The breeze played over her bare skin. He lowered his head to kiss each breast in turn, while she supported herself on her elbows. Then, without looking up, he asked, “Stage 1?”
“How long ago?”
“Almost four years.” He nodded.
“You have beautiful breasts,” he said. “Your areolae are unusually large, and the light pink color… it’s very sexy.” His warm breath bathed her right breast.
“I was scared to let anyone see them. I mean really terrified. You’re the first man who has.” He paused, and then continued running his tongue gently over her nipples. The sensation was exquisite. I am so lucky, she thought. So very lucky.
After a while, he lifted her slightly so that she lay within the curve of his arm while he touched her breasts in the same way she remembered from her dreamlike state in the chateau.
“That night, I came to your room to find the key,” he said, “and I searched your bags, the vanity, every place I could think of. It took me a while to realize you still had it in your… your bosom,” he added, sounding uncharacteristically prim. “When I saw the chain on your neck, I knew where it was. You were on your side, and it was between your breasts. So I unhooked the chain, and unbuttoned your gown, and pulled the key out very slowly. I had to stay at least another fifteen minutes to make sure you didn’t have a reaction.” He snorted. “I was the one who had the reaction. Your breasts were so beautiful, I couldn’t not touch them. I felt as horny as a sixteen year old. And then you moaned.” His voice caught. “It was the most erotic experience I’ve ever had.”
“Theo, I need to know. Did you do anything… more than touch my breasts?”
“No,” he replied. “I might be a cad, but there are some depths to which even I won’t sink. Besides, I thought you remembered.”
“I do, but some parts seem to be missing. I don’t remember you taking the key, or laying me down on the bed again.”
“I kissed you good night and tucked you back in. Do you remember that?”
“No.” I wish I did.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I love the idea of crossing paths with an international art thief at the Café Carlyle in New York. You never know. It could happen…
By this point in the story, it is hoped that the reader can find it in her heart to forgive West for his monstrous behavior on the first night at the château. Actually, it is hoped that the reader is madly in love with West by this point. I certainly was, when I wrote it.