A museum curator slips a masterpiece through the hands of Thrawn.
"Jarek, pour me a Reone el-Vaca."
The bartender whistled. "Springing for the good stuff, huh, Kinnan?"
"It's a night to celebrate," Kinnan Vanerion said, smiling. Lifting his glass to the soft lights of the upscale bar, he watched the play of the mixing golden and crimson liquors. Satisfied, he turned toward the far side of the room where a small painting was mounted over the antique hardwood fireplace. Raising his glass in salute, Kinnan tossed off the drink and turned back to his friend. "One more."
Jarek raised an eyebrow. "Reone is five hundred credits a pop, Kinnan."
"Then let me buy you one, too."
"Thanks, but you know I don't drink while on duty," Jarek chuckled. "But you have to tell me what's got you feeling so magnanimous. I can't imagine it's anything that happened at the concierge desk."
"No, definitely not," Kinnan replied with a wide grin. "Let's just say that tonight marks a new stage in my life, a stage that I am very much looking forward to."
Jarek leaned on the bar. "Spill it."
"I'm sorry, my friend, but I cannot tell you until tomorrow morning."
"Kinnan, come on," Jarek cajoled him. "We've known each other for almost ten years now. Surely you know you can trust me to keep a secret for one night."
Kinnan glanced around hesitantly. The only other patrons in the bar were seated at a table next to the crackling fire at the far end of the room. Their quiet conversation was blurred to a low buzz by the soft classical music piping in through hidden speakers around the room. It was shortly before midnight, during the lull between the after-work crowd and the late-night gamblers, so the upscale bar was likely to remain quiet for a while. Whether it was the liquor taking effect or purely his jubilant mood, he couldn't resist sharing the secret he'd nursed for the past ten years.
"I suppose it couldn't hurt now," he murmured, seating himself. "But you have to swear to never share what I'm about to tell you."
"Of course," Jarek promised.
"You know I have a passion for art," Kinnan began. "And you know that my last job was as a museum curator."
"Yes?" Jarek prompted.
"What you don't know is that I was the head Curator of Abstract Art at the Coruscant Galactic Imperial Museum of Antiquities." He paused to let the title sink in, but seeing no sign of recognition in his friend's face, he elaborated. "It's the largest and most prestigious museum on Coruscant."
Jarek whistled. "Why did you leave a place like that to come work the concierge desk at a little resort way out here?"
Kinnan lowered his voice almost to a whisper. "Because of that." He nodded his head toward the painting over the fireplace.
"Your painting? What about it?"
“It’s what?” Jarek prompted.
Kinnan swallowed hard and leaned forward. “It’s…not technically mine."
Understanding dawned on Jarek's face. "You stole it?"
"Not exactly," Kinnan said quickly. "I'm just protecting it."
Jarek's eyes narrowed as he looked the painting over again. Shortly after Kinnan had begun working at the resort, he had asked Jarek -- the owner of the bar -- to hang the painting over the fireplace. He didn't know much about art, but he'd been looking for something to fill that space on the wall, and most of the resort's patrons were upscale types who appreciated fine art. Besides, the painting had a mysterious aura to it, and it fascinated him, too, so he mounted the air-tight display case containing the painting. Kinnan visited the bar every night after his shift, and never failed to buy at least one drink, and they'd soon become friends. The painting also seemed to draw his other patrons' eyes, causing them to loiter in the bar to examine it and discuss it, which in turn led to more drink purchases. Jarek saw it as a winning situation all around - he'd gained a notable attraction, increased his business, and gained a friend, all at the same time.
"Protecting it from who?"
Kinnan looked around again as he sipped his second Reone. "A young Imperial officer who wanted it for his own personal collection. Let me tell you the story..."
Kinnan activated his comm in response to the quiet ping. "Yes?"
"Sir, your appointment has arrived."
"Thank you, I'll be right there," he sighed. When he'd arrived that morning, he had a message from Imperial Center that a very important guest wanted a personal tour of the Abstract wing of the museum. Unfortunately, the tour was to happen well after normal hours, so he'd had to stay late to accommodate the request. Blasted bureaucrats. While it was still an annoyance, he was at least grateful that he'd been given any advance notice at all for a change.
Kinnan checked a mirror and straightened his tunic before stepping out of his office. His guest turned from an examination of the Gowaene on the wall across from his office and nodded politely. "Mr. Vanerion, I appreciate your time."
Kinnan quickly swallowed his surprise at the man's appearance. Jet black hair topped a completely human frame, but glowing red eyes and bluish skin belied any human heritage. Almost belatedly, Kinnan realized that the man wore an Imperial officer's uniform, and again had to hide his surprise. In all his years at the museum, he'd rarely seen any military types with any interest in art.
"It's no trouble at all...Commander?" he tentatively identified the insignia on the man's chest.
"Very good," the man said in a voice smoother than silk. "Commander Thrawn."
"We have over four hundred paintings by artists from dozens of species, so there is a very wide body of work represented here." Kinnan asked. "What would you like to see, Commander?"
The man's red eyes flicked back to the Gowaene, then swept hungrily across the other works spaced along the walls, narrowing into crimson slits. "Everything."
Kinnan shivered involuntarily. "Very well, if you'll please follow me."
"He spent six hours looking at every single painting in the wing," Kinnan said. "Actually, he didn't just look; he thoroughly examined each one."
"Sounds like a real art nut," Jarek commented.
"That's not the half of it," Kinnan said. "He wanted to know about every single artist. The history, the cultural background, the methods and materials..." he shrugged. "I've never seen anyone soak up as much as he did at one time. It was frankly quite unnerving."
"I can imagine. So what was his story?"
"It turns out he was a brand new Imperial officer on his first visit to Coruscant," Kinnan explained. "He had a few spare hours between his official duties, and chose to spend that time in my museum."
"This guy doesn't sound like a normal Imperial, even for an officer."
"Not at all," Kinnan agreed. "We finally came to the end of the wing, and my favorite painting..."
"This vivid abstract was done by a human named Carcon Hidiginza," Kinnan explained eagerly. "As you can see, this abstract is a garn-oil based resin on canviplast, completed two decades ago."
Commander Thrawn's eyes glowed as he stepped closer to examine the work.
Kinnan continued quietly. "Hidiginza created a fair body of work early in his career, but nothing of particular note. He mysteriously disappeared for several years, and when he surfaced again on Helska, he claimed to have traveled to the fringe of the galaxy where he was captured and tortured by mysterious and unknown self-mutilating aliens. This was his final painting, supposedly depicting that experience. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece, completed shortly before he died. It is generally believed that he either went crazy or was under the influence of glitterstim or some other hallucinogen, but no one can deny the quality of his final work."
Thrawn continued to stare at the painting. "Brilliant," he finally whispered.
"Indeed, it is," Kinnan agreed. "It is one of our most popular exhibits, and my own personal favorite."
"I see you have fine taste," the young officer commented. Turning to Kinnan, he added almost nonchalantly, "Dismount it and have it delivered to my shuttle before I leave in three hours."
Kinnan gaped, shocked at the request. When he found his voice, he rasped, "With all due respect, Commander, that cannot be done. This is one of the prize pieces of the museum's collection, worth over eight million credits. It is not for sale."
Thrawn's eyes hardened just slightly. "I see. Again, Mr. Venarion, I appreciate your time. Good evening." Spinning abruptly on a heel, he moved toward the exit.
"The next morning I received a message from the office of the Emperor himself that the painting was to be packaged and delivered to Imperial Center," Kinnan shook his head wistfully.
"Wow, this Thrawn was pretty connected, wasn't he?"
"Apparently." Kinnan nodded.
"What did you do?"
Kinnan and Jarek turned at the new voice. A man wearing a dark hooded cloak took the barstool next to Kinnan. His cultured voice spoke of intelligence and sophistication. "I apologize for interrupting, but I've always wondered how such a beautiful work of art came to end up out here."
Kinnan glanced uneasily at Jarek, who smiled and shrugged. "It's okay, he's another regular. Been stopping by every few months for years."
Grudgingly, after glancing at the clock again, Kinnan picked up his story. "Like I said, my administrator had gone home, so I didn't receive the message until the next day, after the Commander had already shipped out. However, I was instructed to have the painting ready for him when he returned in three months."
"At least you got a little more time," the hooded stranger commented.
"Yes, and I spent that time writing letters to the Coruscant Arts council, the Painter's Guild, and the Emperor's office, pleading for a reconsideration, but once the Emperor speaks, it's the end of the matter."
"Very true," Jarek nodded. "You should hear some of the things I've heard about people who've tried to argue with him."
"He doesn't generally like to repeat himself," the cloaked stranger agreed softly.
"What happened next?" Jarek pressed.
"It's a done deal, isn't it?"
Kinnan sighed. "Yes, it is." He patted his administrator's shoulder. "Thank you for all your efforts on my behalf to save it."
"You're welcome." She shuddered. "I have to say, though, that I'll be glad to see it go. It gives me the creeps."
Kinnan sighed again. "It is disturbing, but that's part of its majesty. It's almost as if Hidiginza encapsulated the entire purpose of his existence in this one painting." He stared at it for a moment. "It would be a shame to leave it on the dull gray wall of a starship officer's quarters. Art like this deserves to be displayed for millions to see.”
“If you say so,” the administrator said distastefully as she left.
“What other purpose is there for it?" Kinnan muttered to himself. A tone pinged at his control board. Opening the incoming comm channel, Kinnan's spirits fell even further as he answered the call.
"This is Commander Thrawn," came the smooth voice. "I wanted to confirm you would have the Hidiginza ready for me when I land tomorrow."
"Of course, Commander," Kinnan replied through clenched teeth. "Commander, if I may be so bold, what purpose do you have for this work of art?"
"Mr. Vanerion, you are not the only being in the galaxy who has a fondness for fine art."
The barest hint of annoyance laced the statement, but Kinnan pressed forward. "Certainly not, Commander, but I wonder if you are familiar with the care of such a painting."
"I assure you, it will be well cared for. My own collection is substantial."
Kinnan was again surprised by the young Imperial officer. Still...desperation clutched at him as he sought another way of dissuading the young officer. "Commander, may I ask why you are interested in this particular painting? Surely there are many others in our collection that might interest you."
There was a short pause. "Mr. Vanerion, I do not owe you an explanation. Suffice it to say that you have no idea how important this painting is."
Kinnan realized his efforts were futile. Frustration knotted his gut, but he knew he really had no choice. The Emperor had apparently taken an inexplicable liking to this non-human officer, and the matter was closed. "I understand. It will be ready for you when you arrive."
Kinnan collapsed into his chair, rubbing his eyes in sudden weariness. He knew many museum workers joked about how he cared for the paintings under his control as if they were his own children; as silly as it sounded, he certainly felt that one of his own was being ripped away from him. At that moment, Kinnan Vanerion’s mind finally acknowledged what his heart had already decided. He simply could not allow this painting to pass to the strange young officer. It deserved better. No military man – not even the cultured young Commander Thrawn -- would take the proper care of such a masterpiece as this, much less appreciate it as it so richly deserved. The painting had to remain in his care, above all else.
He would have to steal it.
Putting the thought into concrete words shot adrenaline through his veins and sent a trickle of sweat down his spine. With shaking hands, Kinnan quickly opened his bottom drawer and poured himself a shot of Corellian whiskey. He took a few deep breaths in an attempt to achieve some semblance of calm.
A moment later, his mind having come to terms with what he knew he had to do, the plans began falling into place. Although he truly loved art, he had little love for this job, and even less for the bickering politics in which he had to engage in order to please his powerful constituents. No, he would not miss the museum one bit. Liquidating his assets and disappearing would be a bit tricky, having only one day before the young Imperial officer was back on Coruscant, but it could be done.
"I sold everything I owned aside from some personal effects and booked passage on a transport to Obroa-Skai. When I got to the spaceport, I paid cash for a ticket to Yaga Minor, then hopped around for a few weeks until I ended up here."
"How did you get the painting out?" Jarek asked.
Kinnan shrugged. "I was the curator. I simply walked in late that night, unlocked the case, and took it. By the time anyone realized something was wrong, I was halfway across the galaxy.”
Jarek squinted in thought. “And the Rebellion was making some major waves right about then, too.”
“Fortunately for me, yes,” Kinnan grinned triumphantly. “I was conveniently forgotten."
"Incredible," Jarek whistled.
"Very bold," the stranger agreed.
"But worth the risk," Kinnan grinned, saluting the painting and taking another drink.
"So why the celebration tonight?" Jarek asked.
"Because," Kinnan said slowly, "as of midnight tonight, the statute of limitations for my theft expires." He looked up at the clock. "In four minutes, I will be free!"
Jarek whistled. "I have to hand it to you, that's a neat little heist you pulled!"
Kinnan bowed theatrically. "Thank you, my friend. I'll take one more, please."
As Jarek filled Kinnan's glass, the stranger cleared his throat. "There's just one thing I'm curious about."
"And what would that be?" Kinnan's eyes never left the clock.
"You gave up a lucrative career with high status at the center of the galaxy, and you can't have made much money working the concierge desk at a small resort out here on the Outer Rim. Was this painting worth ten years of isolation and forced poverty?"
"Absolutely," Kinnan replied without hesitation. "I've got a job and good friends; now I'll have my freedom, too. Yes, it was well worth it." He stood, raising his glass toward the painting. "Here it comes..."
The hand swept past midnight. Kinnan laughed triumphantly and tossed off the rest of his drink. "I have to get a close-up look." He hurried across the room and scrambled up onto a chair. Reaching up to grasp the painting's airtight frame, his fingers slid right through.
Kinnan Vanerion froze.
Sudden panic squeezed his heart as he pressed both hands against -- no, not against, but through -- the painting, touching the rough brick wall beyond. His precious painting, his most prized possession and the reason for his ten-year self-imposed exile, was nothing but a hologram.
"Wh-where is it?" he stammered. "What happened to it?" One look at Jarek's face revealed that the bartender's surprise equaled that of his own. He turned back to the hologram, slamming his palms through the image to the bricks in frustration.
"Mr. Vanerion, please control yourself," the stranger said quietly.
Kinnan leaped off the chair and rushed over to the man, shaking a finger in his face. "You know something about this! What happened to my painting?"
"It was never yours to begin with," the man commented mildly. He threw back his hood to reveal glittering red eyes set in a handsome face of deep blue skin.
Kinnan stumbled backward in a panic. "It's...It's...you...Commander...no, no, no..."
"It's Admiral now, actually," Thrawn corrected him. "And I had to stop by to commemorate your special evening. Congratulations on your freedom."
Confusion played across Kinnan's face. "Y-You're not going to arrest me?"
"On what grounds?" Thrawn seemed genuinely amused. "The real Hidiginza has been safely in my possession for over four years now. As soon as I located it -- and you -- I had it recovered and replaced by the hologram. You can keep that, by the way."
Kinnan's mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
"So you've known where he was for four years and didn't do anything about it?" Jarek asked, incredulous.
Thrawn shrugged. "I had retrieved the painting, and that's what really mattered. When I saw how our friend here had cared for it, I realized we had a similar passion for art. I could hardly blame him for that."
"So that's it?" Kinnan said, finally regaining his voice as his confusion gave way to anger. "You ruined my life, still ended up with my painting, and now you're just going to leave me here with nothing to show for the last ten years?"
"It is my painting," Thrawn corrected with just a slight edge in his voice. "You would have taken great care of it, I know, but it was created to serve a bigger purpose that only I could fulfill." He rose and dropped some credits on the bar. "Allow me to buy the last round." Turning to Kinnan, he held out a key. "And I wouldn't say you have nothing to show for the last ten years." He quietly slipped out of the bar.
Sitting quietly in the bank’s private viewing room, Kinnan opened the deposit box and gaped in shock - inside were two neat stacks of Imperial credits. Kinnan picked one up and clicked his fingernail along the length of the stack, estimating it to be easily over a million credits. Underneath the money was an actual size replica of the Hidiginza, one so meticulously recreated that only someone who had spent a lifetime studying the painting would be able to tell it wasn't the actual work of art.
Under the replica was a small note. It read:
Mr. Kinnan Vanerion,
I hereby consider you paid in full for six years as personal caretaker
of the Hidiginza masterpiece. The 'Embrace of Pain' is in good hands,
and will be put to good use in the near future.