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Aftershocks

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gesture study
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Darkness.

MacGyver couldn’t tell at first whether he’d actually opened his eyes or not.  He tried to touch his face and find out, and discovered his hands were secured behind his back – the unmistakable bite of handcuffs at his wrists was way too familiar.

Then the awareness of pain caught up with him on the road back to consciousness – a throbbing pain behind the eyes that would have been blinding if he’d been able to see in the first place, and a knot at the back of his skull that drove needles of fire into his brain when he tried to move his head.

Aw, man.  Clobbered in the head again.  What happened this time?  Can’t remember . . .

He was lying on his side, coarse carpeting rubbing against his face, vibrations and a sense of movement, and strong smells of rubber tires and engine grease surrounding him.  Car.  Trunk.  He wasn’t the only thing in the trunk; hard objects slid and bumped against him.  And we’re moving.  Where?

Why?

Owwww . . .

 

Lorr


One:  Post-Impressionist

 

It’s funny how you just don’t see nearly as much of some people as you think you should.  I don’t see my grandpa as often as I really ought to – but I think about him so frequently I sometimes feel like he lives right next door.  I hear his voice in my head, commenting on whatever’s going on.  Sometimes I try to ignore the comments, and I usually find out it’s a bad idea.

A few years back, when Pete and I left the DXS to throw our lot in with the Phoenix Foundation, Harry and I had only just reconnected after way too many stubborn, silent, wasted years.  He didn’t have much to say about the new job, but he seemed mostly pleased.  Maybe he thought the work would be less dangerous.

It was Ruth Collins who recruited Pete and me for Phoenix, but I hadn’t seen a lot of her in the last couple of years.  She had promised Pete that she wouldn’t interfere – ‘much’ – and she was a lady who kept her word.  And she had her own agenda, which mostly seemed to involve beefing up the Phoenix budget by shaking down rich people with bad consciences.  She was real good at that.  Somebody had to be.

She always came down to LA in December to preside over the big Phoenix Christmas party . . . which I always avoided, but not because I don’t like Ruth.  I just don’t like big parties.


“It’s the most unholy mess, is what it is.”

MacGyver could clearly hear the patrician tones of Ruth Collins’ voice while he was still out in the hallway.  The sideways glance he darted at the mirror as he entered the opulent room was a purely automatic reaction; the remark couldn’t possibly have been directed at himself.  Ruth’s personality might be forceful enough to sway the rest of the Phoenix Foundation’s Board of Directors, but she couldn’t actually see through walls or around corners.  Probably.

Although if she could, it would be these walls:  her own elegant house in the rarified neighborhood of Presidio Heights in San Francisco, the unmistakable heart of her private empire.  MacGyver had expected to feel awkward and out of place here, even though he’d been specifically invited – or, rather, summoned.  But he’d been met at the door by Gregory, the Collins’ driver, and the man’s nonchalant air of confident and companionable ease had somehow conveyed reassurance along with welcome.

And Mac didn’t look all that out of place.  His last haircut had been – well, never mind.  But the suit jacket was fresh from the cleaners and had remained mostly unrumpled during the trip from LA to the Bay Area, and the dark trousers almost matched it.  The shirt was clean, the tie wasn’t crooked yet, and Ruth had specifically told him that a tux wouldn’t be needed.

Apparently, she hadn’t told Pete.

“MacGyver!  Um . . . ” Pete’s broad smile of greeting became nonplussed, and Mac felt a moment’s irritation.  How does he manage to look comfortable in that get-up, anyway?  Pete looked natural and poised in his evening dress – he always did – and Mac had never been able to figure out how he managed it.

Ruth’s sardonic voice cut through the awkward moment.  “Don’t give him any grief, Pete.  I told him a suit and tie would suffice.”

“I thought the reception was formal dress.”

“He’s the hero of the hour.  I don’t want him to blend in.”

Mac started to speak.  “Ruth, I really wish – ”

“That I’ll let you keep a low profile?  No.  Your fairy godmother is not going to grant that wish.  You’re the best leverage I’ve had in years, and I intend to make full use of you.”  She was enthroned in an armchair in the magnificently appointed study, surveying Mac with approval.  “Thank you for coming all the way up here for this, MacGyver.  I’m well aware that these events aren’t your style, and I want you to know that I appreciate the effort.”  She beckoned him into the room.  “And it’s damned good to see you again.  It’s been far too long.”

Mac grinned.  “It’s good to see you too, Ruth – you’re looking terrific.”  Privately, he thought she looked more strained than he remembered – and older, which wasn’t something he’d expected to see in Ruth Collins.  Her immaculately coiffed hair gleamed snow-white, and the hands on the arms of the antique chair looked gnarled and frail, too delicate for the weight of the rings she wore.  But her eyes were as bright and unrelenting as ever, and the energy that burned from her was undiminished by the passing years.

The mischief in her smile was also unchanged.  “Flatterer.”  She picked up a slim, flat box from the ornate table beside her and held it out to him.  “This is for you.”

The box held a necktie.  Mac took one brief look at the rich colors of the design and raised an eyebrow at Ruth.  “You want me to wear this to the reception?  Not missin’ a trick in your propaganda routine, are you?”

A sudden gleam of satisfaction lit Ruth’s eyes.  “I take it you recognize the design.”

“It’s from that Van Gogh painting, isn’t it?  The one that was sold a few years ago to that guy from Australia – the big-shot business tycoon.”

Irises.  Yes, exactly.  You know, MacGyver, if you want people to believe you’re a cultural Philistine, you shouldn’t admit to knowing that kind of detail.”

Pete snorted and turned away, covering his mouth to hide his laughter.  Mac’s eyes sparked.  “Is it too late to claim I ran across the article in the paper while I was checkin’ the hockey scores?”

“Far too late.”  Ruth settled back in her chair as Mac swapped neckties.  “Very good.  One look at you and the point will be made.  Irises is now safe in the hands of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles – that story ended happily enough, but by luck rather than decent planning.  It’s not every day that the art world recovers a treasure trove of Nazi war loot.  We – you – have uncovered fifty-seven lost works of art, including a dozen undoubted Old Masters, and I want to rub everyone’s noses in the prospect of losing them again if we don’t plan ahead.”

“Is that what you meant by leverage?”  Mac looked at her as his fingers ran through the routine of knotting the tie.  She noticed that he didn’t need to look in the mirror; a quick glance to straighten it at the end was enough.

“Not exactly.  You do realize the entire situation is the most unholy mess, don’t you?”

Got it.  So that’s what she was talking about earlier.  “How come?”

“It’s going to be a nightmare just establishing provenance for the individual paintings, and a worse one determining rightful ownership.  Every single piece has to be documented, identified, authenticated, assessed, and appraised, and the rightful owners determined and verified in spite of a dearth of reliable information – and contacted, which means located, after a particularly tumultuous half-century.  Some families were entirely wiped out in the Holocaust – most have emigrated, and many now have different names.”

Pete broke in.  “It’s going to take years, isn’t it?”

“It could.  And every piece carries its own burden of historical agony.  Not to mention the staggering value of the finest pieces.  The liability on every level is monstrous.”

“And can you explain just why you want the Phoenix Foundation to take that on?”

What?”  Mac interrupted.  “First I’d heard of it.”

Ruth waved an irritable hand  “Who else?”

“Um . . . ”  Mac gestured vaguely in turn.  His fingers fluttered in empty air as he realized he didn’t have an answer.

“Exactly.  The world will at least be willing to trust our intentions and our integrity.  More than that:  if we can land the project, the collection will remain together while we’re on the hunt for heirs.”

Mac was nodding as he followed her.  “If Phoenix doesn’t handle it, is there anyone else who can?  Anyone that everybody can trust?”

“That’s just the point.  I think the only other alternative will be to break up the collection, and assign a few pieces each to a long list of art historians and other specialists.  They’re all dying to get their hands on even a single canvas, of course, but none of them have anything to match our resources, not to mention our reputation.  Fine art does tend to bring out the passions, and not necessarily the finer ones.”

MacGyver winced and rubbed his head in painful memory.  “Yeah, I noticed that.”

“I’ve spent years nurturing our reputation as white knights, gentlemen. This is one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had, and I don’t intend to waste it.”

“So you’re happy about the splash we made?”  Mac dug his hands into his pockets, and tried and failed to suppress a grin.

“What kind of a ridiculous question is that?” Ruth retorted.  “You’re damned right I am.  Aren’t you?”

Mac gave an oversized shrug without removing his hands from his pockets.  “Yeah, I’m kinda proud of it too.”  Man, is that an understatement.  “So when are we gonna do something about the rest of it?”

Pete winced inwardly.  He knew MacGyver rarely dwelt on past triumphs – his restless mind was always moving on to the next challenge.  Mac often complained about being overworked, but whenever Pete tried to slacken the pace of incoming projects, he could count on Mac to be in his office within a few days, complaining with equal vehemence that he was bored.

And there had been a special glamour to the Brandenburg arrests:  catching actual Nazi war criminals must have been something straight out of Mac’s boyhood dreams of heroism.  With the initial excitement beginning to die down and the media moving on to the next big story, MacGyver must already be thinking about the aftermath of the Brandenburg case.  Pete had been avoiding this conversation for days, ever since the report had come in from the Phoenix legal department.  He hedged.  “The rest of it?”

Mac gave him a puzzled frown.  “The conspiracy.  The map, Pete!  D’ya remember the map?  About the size of a wall, stuck full of little colored flags showing who’s on their payroll?  All their records of a planned neo-Nazi takeover of the entire western United States, for Pete’s sake!”  Mac realized he was shouting.  “Sorry, Pete.”

Pete held up his hands helplessly.  “MacGyver, I ran it past Legal.”

Mac groaned, screwed up his face in exaggerated pain and looked up at the ceiling.  “Aw, Pete, please.  Do not do this to me.  Not after what we went through – they had a shrine set up to Hitler, for pity’s sake!  Don’t tell me there’s nothing we can do with all that!”

“Oh, there’s plenty we can do!”  Pete snapped.  “We can open ourselves up to a whole string of crippling lawsuits – slander, defamation of character, harassment, frivolous charges – enough to sink the Foundation for good!  MacGyver, we have no way of knowing what criteria Frau Brandenburg used when she marked someone down as being on ‘their side’.  For all we know, they were flagging every white male in the western US who happened to have a German name.”

“Can’t we at least check them out?  Turn Research loose on the list?  I bet Willis could turn up something . . . ”

“Vigilante surveillance?  Mac, I hate to point this out, but the Constitution guarantees that unless they do something illegal, they’ve got a right to their beliefs, no matter how much we disagree with them – ”

“Yeah, Pete, I know.  They can believe in any garbage they like, they can feed it to each other, they can brainwash half-educated kids with chips on their shoulders and send them out into the streets with baseball bats, they can wall themselves up in private compounds and stockpile enough firepower to knock over a bank, and we can’t touch them until after they actually kill someone, or at least try to . . . and then only if we manage to catch them . . . ”

MacGyver suddenly realized that Ruth had been sitting silent even as the shouting match grew in volume.  Her face was unreadable; something in her very stillness raised Mac’s hackles.  Her hands were folded in her lap, and the lamp beside her drew bright sparks from the stones in her rings.  The gleam in her eyes was as bright and unmoving, and as cold and resolute.

Mac cut himself off in mid-tirade, and gave Pete a sheepish look.  “Um . . . ”

“Look, MacGyver, I know how you feel, and I’m sorry.  If there was anything we could do . . . ”

Mac rubbed his hands over his face and sighed, letting the familiar sound of Pete’s well-meaning assurances flow past him, even though the words themselves were all but meaningless.  Nothing would be done.  Nothing could be done, ever – not if the suits in the legal department were calling the shots.

As the two men exchanged conciliatory smiles, Mac looked past Pete’s open, frank face and met Ruth’s shuttered gaze.  She nodded, so slightly that he could almost have convinced himself he’d imagined it . . . but he knew he hadn’t.  He gave a quick nod in turn, just as subtly, and saw her eyes gleam with satisfaction – or triumph – or both.

I don’t even know what I just agreed to.

Doesn’t matter.

Pete turned to Ruth, oblivious of the wordless exchange.  “Is Henry going to attend the reception tonight?”  Henry Collins, Ruth’s husband, rarely made public appearances these days.

Ruth shook her head.  “Gregory went out to the greenhouse an hour ago to see if Henry was going to come up for air any time soon, and the poor fellow got barked at.  We are going to leave a sandwich for him on his workbench, and see if he notices it.”

“What if he tries to use it as plant food?” Mac asked.

Ruth waved a hand.  “He’s tried everything else.  Why not ham and cheese?”

Mac stuffed his hands into his pockets again.  “So do Pete and I get to fight over whose date you are tonight?”

Ruth laughed.  “Oh, that could be interesting – I dare say Pete might still have a few tricks he hasn’t shown you yet.  But no.” Her voice took on the crisp tones of habitual command.  “You’ll be with me, MacGyver – and you’re not to try to slip away into some obscure corner.  This evening’s reception isn’t just to officially open the exhibit of the recovered Brandenburg artworks, or even to kick-start the publicity that might help us locate the rightful owners.  We’re also showcasing Phoenix’ role in the entire affair, and that means you have to play the triumphant hero, whether you like it or not.”  Mac winced melodramatically as Ruth continued.  “Pete will escort Laura.”

“Dr. Sand is here?”  Pete asked.  “I thought she'd gone back to New York.”

“I wouldn’t let her miss this for the world.  Her plane landed this afternoon; she’s staying here as my guest, in fact.  She’ll be down shortly.  And it’s now Sandburg – she decided to legally revert to her grandfather’s original family name, after all that’s happened.”

“Has she?”  MacGyver grinned.  “Sam’ll be pleased.”

“If you’re referring to Samuel Bolinski, he already knows.  He’ll be at the reception tonight as well, of course.”

Pete raised his eyebrows.  As Phoenix’ fine arts expert, Dr. Laura Sand had been unprepared when her simple job as an artistic consultant had turned suddenly violent – but the coup of the discovered paintings was a career-defining event for any art historian.  Her name would be known and her ‘luck’ envied by art scholars around the world.

“And she’s agreed to stay on with the art project indefinitely – at the moment, she’s helping me look for another two or three art experts to hire.”

“And am I supposed to find the money to pay for them?”

Ruth shook her head.  “Not this time, Pete.  That’s my job.  Ah, Laura, there you are!  You look magnificent, my dear.”

Dr. Laura Sandburg was dressed formally for the reception, resplendent in black satin, still fiddling with the clasp of an elaborate necklace that sparkled against her skin.  “Ruth, are you sure about lending me this necklace?  I’ve never worn anything this valuable in my life – and the earrings – ”

“Of course I’m sure,” Ruth said tartly.  “The set’s going to be auctioned off next month at the museum’s annual fund-raiser, and I’m counting on you to spend this evening looking prominently glamorous and elegant, so everyone will notice.”

Mac looked her over appreciatively.  “You look great, Laura.  Lemme know if anyone hassles you, okay?”

Ruth snorted.  “No, if you catch any rich old men ogling you, let me know.  They’re all married, and I can blackmail them into bidding next month.” She glanced at her jeweled watch as Gregory appeared in the doorway.  “And it’s high time we left.  Have you brought up the cars?”  Gregory gave a single nod of assent.  “Excellent.”

“Cars?” asked Mac, raising an eyebrow at the plural.  He knew Ruth’s preferred conveyance was a deliberately nondescript late-model sedan, but he suspected that their arrival at the reception would have to be something staged and showy.  His heart sank.

“Gregory will take Pete and Laura in the Rolls, and then go and pick up Sam Bolinski.  Yes, damn it, I know it’s ostentatious.  Sometimes a high profile is necessary.”  As if to prove her point, Gregory held out Ruth’s coat for her:  full-length leather in an eye-catching shade of red.

At least it isn’t a fur coat.  Now that he thought of it, he’d never seen Ruth wear fur.  “What about you and me?”

“As I said, MacGyver, you’re the hero of the hour.  You’re going to have to make an entrance.”

Mac made a face.

Ruth smiled at him compassionately as she slipped into her coat.  “It won’t be as bad as all that.  I do appreciate what an effort this is for you.  I think in the end, you’ll agree that it’s all worthwhile.”

Even in Presidio Heights, many houses in San Francisco lacked garages and very few had driveways; the Collins’ had both.  As they stepped out onto the semicircular brick drive, Mac stopped in mid-stride and let his eyes take in the car parked in front of the house.  “Whoa.”

The sportscar was a dark velvety midnight blue, almost a match for the luminous night sky above them.  Its lines were sleek and powerful, teardrop curves that leaned into an invisible wind as the car hugged the ground.  Even parked in the drive, it looked fast.

Behind him, Laura Sandburg looked at Ruth in mute appeal for explanation.

“It’s a Mustang, dear.”

Gregory cleared his throat.  “A 1967 Ford GT40 Mark III, to be precise.  In immaculate condition, I may add.”

Laura leaned over to Ruth.  “It’s a guy thing, right?” she murmured.

Ruth nodded, beaming indulgently.  Mac noticed Pete smirking and felt his skin twitch at the unmistakeable feel of a set-up.  He didn’t care.

“I’m glad you approve, MacGyver.  You’re driving me.”  She picked up his unresisting hand where it hung at his side, and dropped the keys into his palm.  “Enjoy it while you can.  It’s going on the auction block also.”

Mac realized he was grinning from ear to ear like a little boy offered a rare treat.  He didn’t care if he looked foolish.

“Is that for the museum too?” Laura asked.

“No, the car is going towards the cancer wing of the children’s hospital.”

Pete was laughing, shaking his head at the look on Mac’s face.  “Henry’s actually parting with this?  Ruth, how did you talk him out of it?”

Ruth sighed.  “I personally prefer not to attract so much attention – and the wretched thing never gets driven these days anyway.  Besides, we agreed years ago never to have more than one ridiculously self-indulgent car at a time.  Henry’s been trying for a Bugatti Royale for years now, but for the moment he’s got his heart set on a Stutz-Bearcat.  So the Mustang must go, and I shan’t miss it myself.”

Mac glanced at Gregory.  “How ‘bout you?”

“As Madame says, there is little occasion to drive it.  But it corners better than the Lamborghini we had before this.”

Mac walked over to the Mustang and ran his hand along the smooth curved metal of the hood.  Ruth laughed indulgently.

“Well, MacGyver, are you at least slightly reconciled to the evils of an evening spent peacocking amongst the unforgivably wealthy?”

Mac’s grin became slightly sheepish, but no less broad.

“Very well.  Laura will show off the diamonds, you will show off the Mustang, and I will show off both of you to the admiring eyes of San Francisco’s finest.”

“What about Pete?”

“Pete will show off his matchless ability to look comfortable and natural in black tie.”  Ruth beamed at Pete, who bowed formally.  “Shall we go?  We have an entrance to make.”

Laura smiled as she took Pete’s arm.  “You should have been a diplomat, Pete.  You look the part.”

“Henry tried to make him one,” Ruth remarked to MacGyver as Pete escorted Laura over to the Rolls.  “That attempt at recruitment was a signal failure, of course.”

Mac opened the passenger door of the Mustang and handed Ruth in.  “Not your idea that time around?”

“I would have told him not to try.  Henry was always a brilliant negotiator, but he lacks my particular skill in matching people and potential.”

MacGyver gave her a long, considering look before he closed the car door.  He tossed the keys into the air and caught them in mid-arc as he hurried around the front of the car to the driver’s side.  He slid into the seat and gave himself up to the bliss of handling the magnificent vehicle.

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