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397

John had intended to walk to the museum, hoping that it would help to get rid of the last of the cobwebs that lingered in his brain. His mercenary side always left him with a headache when it put in an appearance, and there was inevitably a sense of confusion that came from the holes in his memory that he always experienced. He had not gone far when an empty taxi cab went past, however; and filled with a sudden sense of urgency - a determination to get his mission completed - he waved it down. He was outside the museum in no time at all then, his renewed focus helping to sort out the fog that still remained. He went around to the security office, intending to use his new-found celebrity there to grease the rails a little. When he walked in, he saw immediately that that would not be necessary.

They were asleep, every one of them. What appeared to be the entire security team, in chairs, on the floor, slumped over desks - he stopped counting at thirty. He didn't need to look too hard to see the reason. Everywhere there were coffee cups, some dropped, others still standing. He could detect no suspicious odours, but then coffee was a good substance to drug for just that reason. He was confused for a moment, although various possibilities suggested themselves. The most likely one was that van Dahl's gang were responsible. He wasn't sure how they had done it, and he didn't especially care, but what mattered was that the security team were no longer an issue. It could not fail to help him, although it might also help somebody else. He checked his watch. The visitors that thronged about the museum were no barrier to him, but they could slow down the opposition. That meant that, if Olivia's colleagues were behind the drugging, with luck he could benefit from it long before they had the chance. The other alternative - that there was somebody else after the painting - he dismissed as irrelevant. Whoever they were, he could stop them. He had never let anybody stand in his way before, and he did not intend to start now. Checking the load in the gun that he had taken from Olivia, he turned back towards the door. He didn't notice Sam Lester sprawled in a chair nearby, but he would not have recognised him anyway. He would certainly have had no reason to suspect that it was Lester who had drugged everybody, himself included, to help along a plan that he knew absolutely nothing about.

The museum was as crowded as expected. John headed up the stairs, allowing himself to move at an unhurried pace along with the milling tourists. He wanted to move faster, but he was determined to wait. Being successful was more important than being fast, he told himself, although his instincts were ready to argue. His head still hurt, which didn't help, and now that he was aware of it, his leg was hurting too. He concentrated on that pain, using it to distract himself from the more problematic one in his head; but he could not fight off the cobwebs. They still tangled themselves around his thoughts, and would do for some time yet. He knew that from experience. When his past collided with his present, the results were always disorientating.

They went up another flight of stairs together - him and a tangle of anonymous, faceless tourists. Some left when they came to a landing, and others joined the throng. Voices moved in circles around him, some in Italian, some in French, some in German, in English, in Spanish - thanks to Rolf he understood them all, but it was comforting rather than confusing. It was a steady drone of noise that helped to distract him further from the confusions. The confusions, however, soon bit back. A man up ahead, sandy brown hair cropped close, had a build that seemed familiar, making John's pulse race with the sudden need to run up the few stairs that separated them, his mind eager to attack. He swallowed the impulse. It looked like Alex North, he realised, and he told himself off for a fool. Of course it wasn't North. North was more than likely dead, or if not then hidden away somewhere. He wouldn't be visiting an art gallery in Rome. Such things were hardly his style. All the same, once the thought had taken hold there was no shifting it, and the stairwell was filled with Alex North, every time there was a man of an even roughly similar build, or with hair even slightly the same colour. John clenched his teeth, and wished that he had van Dahl in his hands again. This time he wouldn't let Olivia distract him from asking the questions that needed to be asked. He drew in a sharp breath, and told himself off once again. Van Dahl was in hospital, unreachable now, and he should not be thinking such thoughts anyway. He was here for the painting, for nothing but the painting. Teeth clenched so hard that his jaw began to ache, he forced himself to stay focused, to move slowly with the tide of pedestrians, to head without eagerness or urgency towards the waiting Renet. It hung just where it was supposed to, with no sign that the drugging of the security guards had put it at risk from anyone else. Letting his eyes roam around the room, he searched for anybody who might be here to the same purpose as he, but he could see nothing suspicious. He smiled. Ghosts pushed aside, cobwebs ignored, he relaxed his aching jaw, straightened his shoulders, and strode with perfect indifference towards the painting. As ever, confidence proved a universal key. Nobody asked him what he was doing as he walked over to the nearest of the wall panels governing the security devices around the painting; that kept visitors beyond arms' length, and stopped even the security guards from touching it. There were three little boxes, all connected to the main computer system that governed the alarms - and all, therefore, completely under his control. Three access codes, three little keypads; a warm smile and a nod to a passing civilian; and he was striding up to the painting. Nobody asked why he was taking it down. There were certainly no security guards to object, and he was, of course, an employee of the museum. Who else would have known what codes to use? When he made a brisk announcement about a threat to the painting, repeating it in some half dozen different languages for the benefit of the tourists, it only helped to complete the illusion. The milling tourists even stepped politely out of his way as he walked back though them and headed down the stairs. Getting out of the museum, of course, could yet prove to be a problem.

There was still a security guard at the front desk - the one person, presumably, who had not been available to be drugged. John was not worried about him. Taking a side corridor intended for employees, he headed away from the foyer, and entered the security offices from the side door. It was easy enough then to take the painting out of its frame, as carefully as Stefano would wish him to, and roll it up into a neat little cylinder. The frame he left lying on a desk, unable to resist the opportunity of teasing the unfortunate guards just a little. A brushed steel briefcase, the lock no barrier, turned out to be the perfect carry case for the painting itself. He tipped out the contents, arranging them neatly inside the frame, then clicked the case closed with its priceless contents safe inside. Nobody stirred. Moments later, work complete, he was striding out into the warm afternoon sun. Soon enough the guards would be discovered. Soon enough somebody would realise that the painting had not been taken by a museum employee. It might even not take long for somebody to guess who was behind it all. He didn't care. All that mattered was delivering the painting to Stefano. That and making sure that Marlena was safe, and finding out about Alex North, and-- For a moment the confusion threatened to overtake him again, and he closed his eyes, pressing one hand against the lids. When there was clarity again, when he could once again think of the present, instead of Alex North, and Marlena, and faceless assassins, he raised his head again, hand tight on the handle of the stolen briefcase. It was over. The mission was complete. Maybe now there would be a few less headaches, and a few less treacherous thoughts to plague his mind. Such distractions had one last trick to spring, however. Even as he was taking his hand away from his eyes, even as he was fighting his way back out of the familiar turmoil, a shadow fell across him. John was quick, but he could not always be quick enough. The blow that struck his injured leg was powerful enough to stagger him, losing him the vital seconds that might have allowed him to form a defence. When a second blow fell almost immediately after, this time across the back of his head, he barely even realised it. There was certainly no time to wonder what was happening, or even to worry for the painting. Falling forwards, the ground reaching up to welcome him, he had precious little time to think at all.

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