Chapter One

Mendelark stood at the computerized index card search station, scanning a serial number for the second time. The number he held in his hand matched the number displayed in the system, but the artwork he was looking for wasn’t located where the computer said it should be.

If not for the hurry he was in, he probably wouldn’t mind trying again. It was a relief to be inside and out of the heat, the Tridian atmosphere unbearable at this time of day. Soon it would be dark and not so bad, but he preferred the comfort of Edok where the temperatures were much cooler. He’d been stuck here far too long and couldn’t wait to leave.

Though Mendelark wasn’t military on his home world, General Santora still relied on him for certain, “special services”. Those activities mostly required someone lacking any moral compass, who was ready to do whatever it took to make sure things went the General’s way. Not to mention the fact, he didn’t have a choice but to comply. Santora ruled with an iron fist regardless of rank.

And the General was not forgiving. This mission especially had to succeed, or Mendelark may as well never return home. It was no time to be concerned about the heat outside. There would be greater heat if he didn’t find the painting. This particular piece had to be in his possession. Today! And that’s what was beginning to worry him.

Twice now over the past few weeks, he had tried to steal the artwork in question, but for one reason or another, couldn’t get out of the store undetected.  He was forced to hide it among other pieces and left to try again another day.

Today was even busier with the holiday crowd. Though there were more people shopping, it would be a lot easier to move around and blend in without anyone paying much attention, since everyone was absorbed in their own lives. The problem at the moment wasn’t the crowds; he simply couldn’t remember where he hid it.

Again, the computer found a match. He cross referenced the location data on the screen with what he’d written down the first time. It was no mistake. He was looking in the right location, or at least where the painting was supposed to be.

The piece wasn’t there. Maybe it was still mixed in with other images from when he was forced to hide it, but maybe not. Fear began to creep in. Perhaps someone else found and purchased it.

“Excuse me”, Mendelark reluctantly approached a sales agent.

“Yes sir, how may I help you?” the agent was eager to help.

“I’m looking for a specific piece of artwork. A Mirawey original”, Mendelark said.

Excitedly, the agent answered, “Mirawey, yes! I just came across a piece of his work recently and was very impressed. His images are so life like, as if you’re looking at a photograph. Do you have the serial number?”

Mendelark handed him the paper. It was back to the search station.

A few minutes later the sales worker confirmed what an anxious Mendelark already knew. The piece wasn’t where it should be.

“I’m sorry sir, it’s not here. Give me a couple minutes. If we have it, I think I may be able to locate it on a private system. I know this piece and I’m pretty sure it’s not been sold.”

Mendelark could only hope it to be so. Minutes later the sales agent returned.

“As I suspected, it looks to have been misplaced. Our store scanners picked it up in a wrong location. Again!”

As they walked towards a different part of the store, the agent continued. “The weird thing is, I only saw this piece for the first time, a couple weeks ago when I found it in a wrong location then. What are the chances of that happening twice with the same piece?”

Mendelark didn’t offer a response. Instead he quietly followed the agent to where the artwork was now supposed to be. They were in about the right location. He was beginning to remember.

Scanning the shelf, the agent found the piece and pulled it down. Mendelark rudely pulled it from him and inspected the serial number. A match! Tremendous relief flooded over him.

“This is it”, Mendelark said. “Thank you for your help.”

The agent stood confused. He was looking at the painting in Mendelark’s hands.

“I’m sure this is the serial number and the image I pulled two weeks ago. There’s the stone and tree. And the roadway. I know it’s the painting, but when I saw it, there were also horses grazing in the grass nearby. But they’re not there now.”

“I don’t know” retorted Mendelark in a rough tone. He was clearly irritated. “Maybe there’s two paintings with the same number.”

“I don’t think that’s possible. Besides, I’m sure we only carry this one.” The agent reached towards the painting, “May I see it again for just a second?”

Hesitantly, Mendelark handed it to him. The agent started to walk away, Mendelark quickly following.

“I just wanna check something in our database. I’m sure it’s nothing”, he apologized.

After punching the serial number into the computer, the worker scanned the screen until he found what he was looking for.

“It mentions here in the description, the stone and tree with a road to town cutting between the two”, He continued to read. “A lone horse drawn cart carries goods to the market.” Now the agent was really puzzled.

“This description is different than the painting I saw and is definitely different than what we have here“. There was a slight pause as he thought for a moment. “I guess we do have a problem with this tracking number, which is really odd. I need to keep it a little longer to find the correct number. Can I call you when I have this straightened out?”

Mendelark didn’t want to make a scene. He was agitated, but calmly made arrangements to pick up the piece later. But getting the image later wasn’t really on his agenda. He was leaving with this item now.

If looked into as suggested, there would only be found other disturbing anomalies, an investigation most likely putting their plans in jeopardy. He wasn’t going to let that happen.

With painting in hand, the agent pushed through a door at the back of the store. Keeping a safe distance behind so as to not be seen, Mendelark followed him into the stock room. A stack of boxes in the corner provided good cover.

From here, he could see the painting being placed in a bin across the room. Reaching down to his boot, he pulled out a dagger.

As he stepped from cover, the door to the main floor swung open, forcing him back out of sight. Two other sales agents entered. One of them saw Mendelark and approached.

“Jarik, is that you? Why are you hiding behind these boxes?”

Mendelark thrust his dagger hard into the upper cavity of his unsuspecting victim. The other man who followed closely behind, stood paralyzed in shock. It proved fatal for him as well, with a deep cutting swipe across his throat.

Jarik recognized the man who stepped from the darkness, a bloody dagger in his hand. There were no exits except through the store. An office in the corner might provide safety if he could make it there and lock himself in. Mendelark saw what his next victim was thinking and now sprinted towards the store clerk.

In his panic, Jarik turned to run, but instead tripped and fell to the floor. Sobbing, he pulled himself up and tried to make it to the back room. But it was too late. His attacker planted the dagger hard into his back between the shoulder blades, bringing him down just a few feet from the office door.

Retrieving it from his victim, Mendelark also grabbed the clerk’s key card from its holder. He’d seen this enough to know he needed it to deactivate the painting’s security device.

“This worked out better than I could have planned!” Mendelark was smiling.

A few minutes later, artwork in hand, the hot outside air washed over him.

“Almost night time and still so uncomfortable”, Mendelark commented to another customer who was also walking out.

No one paid him any attention as he headed for the shuttle station. He was leaving this hell hole, finally. The art festival was starting in two days. It was just enough time to get the painting there before it began.

 


Prologue Chapter Two