We stood across the wide moonlit river from Big Ben, in the prime spot for viewing London’s New Year’s fireworks extravaganza. The jubilant crowd jostled and shouldered its way to fill every inch along the Thames, more than a half-million people crowding into every open space around us this clear cold night. All waiting for the countdown to start. Even with the event tickets Jack had snagged, we shared our roped-off space with about a hundred thousand fellow revelers. Central London bridges began shutting down just after noon, readying for the standing-room-only masses, and many of the streets were closed all day in preparation for the night’s event and the hordes of people looking for a place to catch the stunning pyrotechnic performance. Rock music pulsed through the PA system, but the constant babble of the voices around us, most raised so their words could be heard by the people standing next to them, made all sound flow into a nearly incomprehensible rumble.
“Have you been here for the Lord Mayor’s event before?” Jack Hawkes leaned down and shouted into my ear.
“Not for a while,” I returned, equally loud. I’d been in Sydney the last couple of years, enjoying the milder weather during their January summers. Though the temps in Oz were nice and the people definitely fun, it didn’t have the same electric feel for me as a frosty New Year’s Eve in New York or the U.K. The brisk wind off the water zigzagged through the crowd, blowing my long hair across my face. I used a hand to brush away the blond curls, then hunkered down in my champagne-colored leather coat as I added, “This is all much as I remember, though it is kind of weird getting a
“But worth it,” Jack said. “The special ticketing for the event only happened a couple of years ago. From the crowd control standpoint alone it offers a lot of advantages.”
Safety, naturally, had created an even greater need for knowing who might be in a crowded world capital during something as well-attended as this public party. The thought made me take another glance around the crushing public. Not that I thought I would spot criminal activity—or even could in this throng—but it seemed the thing to do. When my sweeping gaze returned to Jack, I saw he was doing exactly the same thing. As an art recovery expert, observation skills are my chief tools of the trade. Jack’s talents were even better developed than mine, though I hadn’t yet learned why he was such a pro at doing a job he never talked about.
I moved closer and tugged his collar. When I wore heels he stood nearly a head taller than me, but the walking boots I’d donned for the occasion kept me much closer to the ground. I wasn’t worried about being overheard in this cacophony, but I wanted him to actually hear my words when I asked, “Nico told me he sent you a tracking app. Did you get it?”
My wonder geek, Nico, usually kept tabs on me via the GPS in my phone, but Jack had rather unconventional ways of doing so. Ways we’d argued about. Often.
Jack cocked a dark eyebrow. “Yes, he said it was to track you more easily. I was surprised you didn’t argue.”
“So you didn’t say anything because…?”
He shrugged and had the grace to look a little sheepish.
“Nico got inventive after Tony B kidnapped me in Miami. When his thugs broke my phone and I disappeared from everyone’s radar, he decided we needed a backup method for GPS.” I held up my left hand to show off my newest piece of jewelry. A lovely charm bracelet. “The camera charm disguises a tiny transmitter.” The app Nico sent to Jack keyed into the charm’s frequency.
“You’re okay with that?” he asked.
“Nico asked permission.”
“Like he wouldn’t have done it regardless.”
“Still, he asked.”
“I feel privileged to be in the inner circle. To know where you are at all times.”
I caught the sarcasm in his tone and matched it. “I didn’t want you to keep working so hard behind the scenes. You might use up too many favors with MI-5 and the Met police.”
Jack gave me a crooked grin, then fingered the tiny silver camera. “At least I’ll know where your bracelet is at all times.”
I got the dig. He knew I’d slip my leash whenever I wanted, but his steady gaze told me he understood I took the continued threat seriously. We didn’t know why I had become particularly interesting to criminals during the previous months, but until we identified the reason or captured all the players, I was ready to accept a little electronic help from one of Nico’s gizmos.
We’d had our rocky starts, Jack and I, not the least of which due to both of us wanting to always be in charge and neither really trusting the other. With reason. He knew everything about me— well, all about the “public Laurel Beacham” at least—and told me little about himself. Jack’s reason for not always trusting me was…well, I play by my own rules. Some of those rules have gotten me into trouble lately. When finding lost art is the objective, trouble can happen more often than one would think. Being able to always track me had become a priority, whether I liked it or not.
He looked at his Silberstein. “Minutes away from the countdown. Are you getting cold?”
Only my face felt the freezing temps off the river. I knew he was changing the subject. The bundled crowd around us was more than enough body heat to keep us warm. “I’m toasty. Does the Eye signal the start again?”
He nodded. “The lights begin flashing about ten seconds
Next, the glorious twelve-count strikes of Big Ben would sound and fireworks soar thundering to the heavens and usher in new beginnings, new promise, and a new year. It didn’t matter how many times I witnessed an event like this, the kid in me always got antsy. I wanted it all—pronto.
“There’s the kissing at midnight, remember,” Jack said, his gaze never leaving mine.
“I think in a crowd this size we should have no trouble finding a friend to pair up with.” I smiled.
“Did you think I was sugges—”
His teasing response was interrupted by a slurred shout. “Oy! Jack Hawkes. How the devil are you?”
A thirties-something man stumbled into us. He was rail thin, even in his long gray greatcoat, but his momentum almost made us lose our footing. The man was also familiar.
“Hamish.” Jack bolstered the tipsy friend. “Never expected to see you here tonight, mate.”
The interloper turned to me, weaving a bit and slurring, “Can’t forget this pretty lady…Laurel Beacham, correct?”
I smiled and nodded, realizing the obnoxious drunk was an old school chum Jack introduced me to when we were in Florence last fall chasing criminals. Hamish taught art history at the university level there, and I’d had Nico check him out. Nothing overly suspicious came up on his background, nor anything to imply involvement in the prospective heist we currently worried over. We struck him from our list of suspects when no big payoffs appeared in his bank accounts. Though he was likely in town for Christmas visiting, I did find it interesting he was in London and materialized beside us at this event.
“Here on winter break,” he said, confirming my suspicion as he gave Jack a friendly slap on the back. Knowing the man had no biceps, I doubted Jack felt a thing. Hamish continued, “Have to leave tomorrow to return to teaching the dil-et-tante rabble.”
Despite his stutter over dilettante, I began to think he wasn’t as buzzed as he appeared. He couldn’t be truly drunk, or one of the roving bobbies would have moved him through the crowd and out the gates. Was it an act for us? Or had he simply been super-careful until he spotted his old friend, Jack? Just the same, I wondered how much alcohol was actually in that skinny body.
“Is Milli here?” I asked, stretching tall to pretend to look for his pretty wife.
Hamish waved a crazy hand as if brushing something aside. “No crowds for our tight-assed Mills. She’s afraid someone will trod on her fancy shoes.”
She was from money and held the purse strings. Was this a drunk’s loose-tongued revelation, or an admission of trouble in paradise? For Hamish’s sake, I hoped not the latter. His personal paycheck could not provide the lifestyle he’d grown accustomed to with his marriage to Millicent and her daddy’s money.
Suddenly, a raised voice on the loud speakers cried, “One minute, everyone!” The air charged. The crowd shifted. Everyone turned toward the London Eye.
A half-million voices counted down in unison with the speaker on the PA. I looked at Jack and he grinned at me. I felt eight again—and twenty-eight at the same time. I raised my voice with the others.
Hamish stayed silent beside me. Maybe he was too drunk to be able to count backward. As we hit twelve, I turned and saw he was staring off in the distance. Away from the flashing wheel keeping us on track with the countdown.
I kept in time with everyone else, smiling up at Jack before watching the lights again.
“Three, two, one—”
The bell in Big Ben gave a decisive first gong as the lights strobed around the Eye. I turned to Jack as he moved toward me.
Then I was whirled around and smashed into the worst slobbery, beery kiss of all time.
Jack roared, “What the bloody hell?”
I tried desperately to escape Hamish’s determined embrace. I finally broke free and pushed away from the intoxicated boor.
Jack’s fist was already in play.
He had obviously been aiming for the side of Hamish’s ear. When I pushed the fool, my chin ended up in the trajectory instead. Quick reflexes and a bit of luck allowed Jack to pull back a little, making it a glancing blow. Nonetheless, the brief contact with the side of his fist knocked me off my feet.
“Oh my god, Laurel. I’m sorry. I saw at the last second, but I could only—”
I waved a hand at the distraught almost-white knight kneeling beside me. “I’m alright.” I wiggled my jaw a couple of times to be sure. Yep, I’d be sore, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t experienced before. “At least you didn’t strangle me this time.” I smiled as best I could to show I was teasing, but Jack’s face immediately grew more thunderous at something behind me.
Turning, I realized we had more trouble.
“Laurel, mon dieu, I will call an ambulance.” It was Rollie, the grandson of Devin Moran, the master criminal we presumed was in charge of the premier heist Jack and my team were trying to stop. All of Moran’s confederates were on our most wanted list, and Rollie in particular because he may have been connected with Tony B due to video evidence of a couple of recent events. While we’d been working feverishly since October to find the hole he and everyone else was hiding in, I definitely didn’t need him there. At that moment.
The last time we’d seen Rollie he was walking down an Italian sidewalk with an international felon. Now he was in London, apparently attempting to get Jack to throw another punch as they set me back on my feet. They were more successful at playing tug of war with me as the presumed prize.
“Stop!” I jerked my arms free and pulled my cuffs back down to my wrists. “I’m fine. Thanks, both of you.”
“I saw him hit you.” Rollie got ahead of me and bent down, trying to look closer at my chin. “We will call the gendarme. I will swear—”
“I didn’t mean to hit her,” Jack growled and tried to pull me away. Rollie made another grab for my arm.
A far too interested crowd had formed around us, and the fireworks were proceeding without anyone in our vicinity paying the slightest attention. Why should they when the ground entertainment rivaled any top ten reality show?
Hamish did the smart thing and disappeared. I needed to get Rollie to do the same. Especially once I saw we’d caught the attention of a uniformed bobby. The officer was making his way down from the edge of the crowd. Time to work fast.
“Guys, please.” I smiled at Jack, then turned to Rollie. “I appreciate your help, but Jack’s chivalry simply backfired. It was an accident. Please, go back and join your friends, Rollie, and don’t worry about me.”
“Non, I will stay here, I will—”
“No.” I shook my head and reached up to pat his chest with my hands, effectively pushing Rollie away as my fingers touched the fine leather I recognized from this year’s Versace line. “I’m going to call it a night, and Jack will take me home.”
Jack pushed in closer. “I didn’t—” he started.
I interrupted my Hulks before they rumbled. “It’s all right. Thanks so much for your help, Rollie.” The bobby was close enough to see my smile. I gave him a “don’t worry about it” wave and pulled on Jack’s arm. “Let’s go.”
I didn’t see which direction Rollie headed. I hoped seeing me turn my back on him and going away with Jack would end further discussion.
Roman candles burn at temperatures exceeding twenty-five-hundred degrees centigrade. I’m not sure Jack’s temper wasn’t beyond this range as we worked our way through the crowd. He likely could have talked his way out of any trouble with the constable, but we didn’t need the attention.
“Damn that bastard Hamish,” Jack cursed. “All the times I saved his bloody arse in school.”
“He was drunk tonight and mad at his wife,” I said. After the awful kiss I knew he’d had his share of alcohol, but I did wonder what he was looking at moments before the big blowup.
Jack growled something under his breath, before saying louder, “Then that arse Rollie shows up and acts like I did it on purpose.”
“Well, you did mean to throw the punch.”
“I didn’t mean to hit you!” He pulled me nearer a street light and looked closely at my jawline. “Laurel, I’ll make this up to you, I promise.”
“You certainly will,” I said, trying to keep from wincing when he touched a tender spot. “You’re taking me dancing, buster. Dinner too. That’s how you’ll make it up to me.”
He finally grinned. “Dancing with you doesn’t exactly sound like punishment.”
“You’ve only worked with me a few months. You have no idea how long I can dance.”
He laughed. I’d completed my objective. “Really, I’m okay.” I gave him a hug.
I kept my arms around him but leaned back to see his face, right as another symphony of light splashed across the sky in every imaginable color. The noise was ear-shattering, and I could already smell the gunpowder riding the air currents, but the effect was magnificent. “Oh, my.”
“Let’s stand over there and watch.”
I nodded, and we moved along the fringe. He kept his arm around my shoulders, and I let him. As the music swelled and the heavenly display reached its climax, his body relaxed a little, and I thought everything was back in balance again.
Until he said, “Really, you didn’t have to flirt with the jerk to keep him from reporting me to the police. I do have resources, you know.”
“I do know.” I looked up at him. “So do I. What you thought was me flirting to get him to go quietly away actually served a higher purpose. It allowed me to leave a small remembrance of this evening in the breast pocket of his jacket. The kind of pocket in leather coats men likely never use. Or look into.”
At Jack’s puzzled expression I held up my left arm, making sure my charm bracelet glowed in the light. The bracelet no longer displaying a tiny silver camera.
“When you straightened your cuffs,” Jack said, wonder filling his voice.
“When I straightened my cuffs.”
“We can track him.”
“You can. I don’t have the app.”
“I could kiss you.”
“First, pull out your phone and start tracking.”