LE FANTÔME • by Daniel Boshoff

Thomas was wringing his hands.

Thomas was gritting his teeth.

Thomas was shitting his pants.

Christ, how had he been so stupid? Of course the backup security would be on a separate line! The alarm was screeching like a disgruntled Spanish fishwife, drilling a hole in his concentration and compounding his panic.

Thomas tried to breathe.

Okay, he thought, I have some time, probably a few minutes before the frigs arrive (Thomas thought of the French police as frigs – frogs crossed with pigs), so not a lot of time. What have I got?

Well, he had a five-million-pound painting of a woman’s behind…

What else? A flashlight, a pocket knife, a set of screwdrivers, a cellphone; nothing of any use now.

What he really needed was a bulldozer or maybe a tank to knock down the heavy steel gates that had slammed down on all the exits… Why oh why did they not simply leave those bloody gates down during closing time? Thomas wondered. That way prospective procurers such as himself wouldn’t even bother trying their luck! But perhaps that was the point… Perhaps the museums wanted to catch the odd thief every now and then. Probably made for good headlines, which probably made for good business.

Suddenly Thomas wished he was back in Trafalgar Square dressed all in gold with his gold face-paint and gold hairspray, standing on his little golden pedestal. It was true what they said: We all think we’re unhappy with our lives until we’re standing knee-deep in pig shit. And, now that he thought about it with the new perspective of one caught red-handed, he had been happy. Holding real still, waiting for the clink of a coin, doing a wave for ten pence and a jig for a pound; he had enjoyed it. It wasn’t such bad work – better than sitting in an office all day. And children thought he was hilarious…

Except Tommy Junior. Tommy Junior was embarrassed that his dad was a living statue for a living. And when Junior’s asthma had taken a turn for the worse, Thomas simply couldn’t afford the medication any more. So here he was, clutching a painting of a woman’s behind and about to go to Froggy prison…

Thomas tried to calm down.

Junior needs his father, he told himself, so think, Thomas, think mate! You’re in the east wing, remember the blueprints, remember the website. . .

There would be a display of seventeenth century clothing down the hall – on loan from the National History Museum, if he remembered correctly. Maybe he could hide amidst the frocks and coifs until the frigs went past and then make good his escape? He could think of no better plan anyway.

Thomas spun on his heels and ran back down the way he’d come, taking a left into a tall room filled with stagecoaches and absurd outfits in glass frames and several mannequins posing in extravagantly colorful finery. Looking around at the mannequins, still and silent on their pedestals, Thomas smiled.

He grabbed a feathered hat from one dummy and a pair of pantaloons from another. Swiped a pair of silver-buckled boots from a display and tucked his own shoes into his belt. He hurriedly buttoned a ghastly doublet over a ruff nabbed from Samuel De Champlain the navigator, and added a fur-lined coat to complete the disguise. Then, standing beside De Champlain with the painting rolled in his hand like an ocean chart, he raised a finger to the west and did what he did best.

When the police came to search the room, they failed to notice the quiet breathing of one of the mannequins. Thomas stood stock still all night long, while investigators hurried up and down the corridor outside the room and the hotel’s curators were ushered in. Tears were shed. People said, “merde!” And Thomas didn’t move at all throughout the following morning.

Electricians came to rewire the cables he had cut, the ones for CCTV and beam alarms. Thomas scarcely blinked.

The museum finally reopened its doors to the public late in the afternoon. A throng had gathered to come and see the cordoned-off crime scene in the east wing, just beyond the room with the display of 17th century clothing, and when a mannequin next to Samuel De Champlain descended its pedestal and shed its coat and feathered hat, nobody noticed. Thomas mingled with the crowd and made his way to the museum toilette. There, he finally allowed himself to feel relief. He also took a piss.

He strode from the Petit Palais Art Museum, right out the front door, and along the bank of the Seine, heading for his hotel. He smiled as he read the headline of the day’s paper over the shoulder of a man seated on a bench. It read, Tableau Précieux Volé Par ‘Le Fantôme’. Priceless Painting Stolen by ‘The Ghost’. Ha! The Ghost! He liked that, and he was willing to bet Tommy Junior would like it too.

Daniel Boshoff used to be a dope-smoking teenage delinquent, a ceramic sculptor, a chef, a sailor on the high seas, a musician, a tattooist, and a baker of artisan breads (in that order), but apparently consistency isn’t his thing. Now he gardens and writes and depletes his savings account. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa with his partner in everything (including, but not limited to, crime), who is a blonde. If you can beat him at scrabble, he will be your friend forever.

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