Clouds shrouded the moon. The Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo, snoozed by the rose bushes after devouring the tasty treat I had offered. Waves crashed in the distance and gave the crisp sea air a taste and smell of salt spray. The estate’s showplace lawn ended a hundred yards away at a private beach.
Like my previous visit, I wore head-to-toe black. For this jaunt, however, I hadn’t donned the ebony-beaded Vera Wang halter gown and Jimmy Choo stilettos I sported the last time. No, for the current foray, my Lycra garb more closely resembled Catwoman with my blonde hair hidden under a dark hood. Night vision goggles finished off the ensemble. The difference between arriving invited versus an incognito—and illegal—entrance. I pulled up my turtleneck to cover the lower part of my face and fitted night vision goggles over my eyes.
As I slipped through the mansion’s side door, the left wall security pad flashed. I patted the ring of leather pouches attached to my belt and removed a cute little gizmo I’d picked up in Zurich that resembled a garage door opener. Only this handy gadget decoded electronic security systems, rendering them harmless. The tiny warning whine never had a chance to turn into a scream; my device made friends and invited us to enter.
I slipped down the rear hall and up the staircase my research had uncovered in a back issue of Architectural Digest. At the upper landing, infrared lasers protected the area from unwelcome visitors. I opened another pouch, withdrew a small, specially formulated aerosol can, and sprayed in a sweeping pattern. As the particles fell, laser lines were revealed in vivid detail. Seconds later, I’d picked the lock on the turret gallery door.
The last time I stood in the gallery the master of the house provided a guided tour and made a blatant pass beneath the gaze of a Dutch Master. My ability to deflect the Lothario took grace and diplomacy, plus restraint to curb the strong desire to disable his favorite body part. Still, the event had been worth the effort. A six month quest was over, and I had found my Holy Grail of paintings.
“My father started this collection,” the slimy billionaire had bragged. “He made purchases while stationed in Europe in the mid1940s. I added to the works and specially constructed this temperature-controlled castle safe room.”
On this return visit—my acquisition finale—I slid into the darkened gallery. The circular space, lit only by the minimal luminosity filtering through a half-dozen narrow arched windows, allowed my shadow to mix with those already in residence. Night vision goggles allowed the glorious set of Rembrandts and French Impressionists to glow alongside the beauty I came to liberate.
It was a vibrant seascape, circa 1821, and a breathtaking scene of energy and clear passion. A little known work by a well-respected artist, which had been cherished by the family of its previous owner before eventually falling into the hands of the billionaire’s father. Gazing upon the work, I could almost hear the buoy bell ringing in the distance, but the room’s current illumination left the scene too dark to see beyond the receding foamy water. I shivered as if the wind picked up; the painting was that powerful.
I heard a noise. A human-moving noise.
I had to hurry. I slipped a blade from my belt and ran it along the frame’s edge.
The moment the canvas was free, I heard the master of the house bark, “What are you doing?”
I spun to find him standing behind me. Holding his gaze, I sheathed my knife and dug into another pouch, then threw a capped vial into the darkness between myself and potential capture. The glass broke, and when the chemicals inside hit the air, a dense smoke obscured all vision. But I had already calculated the distance to the nearest window, moved to it, and affixed a suction cup with a braided nylon line to the wall. The painting protected in one hand, my remaining gloved fist, now fitted with brass knuckles, shattered the narrow pane. I slid through the turret’s slit window, taking a few shards of glass along for the ride. Then I rappelled down the rough stone wall to the manicured lawn.
“Zeus! Apollo! Robbery! Attack!” my impotent enemy screamed.
Next morning, the painting and I slipped into the back of Greg’s shop for the new frame constructed per my specifications. A close facsimile to photos, and infinitely better than the garish gold number that restrained the seascape during its turret imprisonment, the burnished brass frame even evoked a nautical theme that conjured the look of a spyglass.
I changed into blue coveralls and left his shop with the newly framed painting wrapped in brown paper. Magnetic signs attached to my van implied a courier service, as did the faked breast pocket insignia on my uniform. The drive to Mrs. Lebowitz’s tiny home was quick.
“Yes?” she said, answering the door. A Holocaust survivor, the only one in her family to make it out of Europe alive, she was a child when the Allies freed her from Auschwitz.
My brown-wrapped package once graced her grandmother’s dining room. Before it was stolen by Nazis and purchased with fictionalized provenance by my adversary’s father. One of my pro bono projects to not only return the art to its true owner, but to insure masterpieces such as this one did not get locked away from public sight.
“Mrs. Lebowitz, I have a very special delivery.”
Eighteen hours and one chartered jet flight to Italy later, I was still running on adrenalin as I played the part of an art world socialite representing the New York based Beacham Foundation. Easy enough, since I’d perfected the role over the last five years, except that nothing was going right tonight.
“A quick and easy pickup,” Max, my boss, had told me. “Everything is taken care of. Don’t worry.”
It was another black-tie affair with nothing more to go on than a name and small photo that Nico, my research wizard, had slipped me earlier with a flute of Dom Pérignon. Not a perfect method but it worked for us. As the foundation’s leading art recover expert my life was pretty much a series of different hotel rooms every week. Tonight’s event was one of a series of smaller jobs directing me to the person who held an art object I needed to return to the person or institution that had true ownership. Mrs. Lebowitz’s job had been a rushed opportunity when I had little choice, since I’d not only learned the painting’s location, but also information regarding a potential sale in the works. On the other hand, this evening’s pickup at another glittery party was “my day job.”
Despite Max’s assurances, things began tanking with a flourish before I’d even arrived. First, I’d received a bogus text with driving instructions that sent me in the wrong direction. Once I’d found the correct location, I went in search of my objective in the early meet-and-greet stages of the party. Our contact in the photo was nowhere to be found, despite my best efforts in searching this extensive castillo. Finally, and probably the most disturbing after all that had gone wrong, I’d noticed one of the attendees seemed a bit too interested in me. I’d dodged him once in the entry, again in the ballroom. And here he was again. Churning through the crowd like a heat-seeking missile. A Rhett Butler wannabe in Armani. There was a canniness to the way he looked at me that said I was an assignment instead of a prospective assignation.
I tried to figure which camp he fit into, but got nada. With so many players in the art game, it was hard to keep everyone straight, both above and below ground. But a new American would have stayed in my memory, especially a tall male one with a deep Southern accent. Was it simple egoism, or did he work for someone plotting against me? My money lay on the latter. Especially after the diverting text.
He blocked my way. “How ’bout we take a late night stroll outside? A lil birdie tol’ me the air on this Italian bay is soft as warm satin slidin’ over your skin.”
Disregarding my first impulse, which would have left him with a broken nose, I kept my breathing and temper at even levels. I needed to find out what his game really was—but not now.
“Why don’t you ask that lil ol’ birdie to join you?” Did the bogus text come from Mr. Wonderful, here? The man who had paid me too much attention to me all evening? My palms were damp as I ran them down my black sheath, ostensibly to smooth the material around my hips, but actually to dry my sweating palms.
“I’m afraid that lil birdie has moved on to bigger and better things.” One of his strides halved the distance between us. “You know, honey, while gentlemanly manners forbid I refer to a lady by anything other than beautiful, I must say you’re looking very pale at this moment, even for a natural blonde, Miss…”
Miss None of Your Business! But I wasn’t fooled. I saw the intelligence behind those teal eyes. He knew I was Laurel Beacham. Hell, he probably knew my middle name was Iris and I’d streaked through the Cornell library freshman year. I didn’t know how he knew—just that he did. I also knew anger had replaced any paleness on my face with a bright blush.
“I’m sorry, I don’t feel well,” I lied, turning before he could stop me. I strode quickly down a hall, relieved when a discreet lavatory door offered refuge.
I took a couple of deep breaths, regaining my composure. Though, as I looked around the lavatory, that composure quickly died.
A mosaic-tile wall separated the toilet from the lavish dressing salon. A pair of wingtips peeked from behind the wall at an awkward angle. I hurried around the wall and stopped short.
There was no mistaking him. Propped on the john was the man from the photo who I was supposed to meet. Half of his handlebar moustache was jaggedly slashed and discarded on the floor, while blood from a gash at his throat spilled down his round belly and onto the cushioned turquoise seat.
Even as nausea hit, my mind ticked over the possibilities. From the look of things, he had been dead only a few minutes. No blood trail, so he’d been killed where he sat.
I frisked him, careful not to touch skin as I explored bulges that could be the seventeenth-century snuffbox I’d been sent to recover, but the search proved fruitless. Something wasn’t right. The snuffbox, though a valuable art object, didn’t warrant taking the man’s life. I needed to get somewhere safe and call Max, let him handle what had obviously become a complicated job. That’s why he made the big bucks. Too many slipups already, and I needed to move quickly before I lost my nerve. The subliminal message all night seemed to intentionally keep me one step behind the objective. Leaving me to wonder what might have happened if I had gotten my hands on the snuffbox.
Straightening, I went to the sink and washed my hands. Twice. This party was definitely over. Time to find Nico and get both of us out of there.
Black ties and dazzling dresses swirled around the ballroom to kaleidoscopic effect. Still touched by shock, I marveled a moment at what crystal chandeliers did for precious gems and designer signatures. The international cast comprising the guest list had once made this job interesting, but now they just hindered my progress. I prayed Nico hadn’t slid off with one of the real hired help for an assignation—his modus operandi when his phase of the work was completed. I couldn’t face another systematic exploration of the Italianate estate’s gold leaf, fine tapestries and Carrera marble.
I took a long cleansing breath, reminded my nerves to stay in check, and spotted Nico’s dark curly head. Sans tray, he sported a tuxedo jacket obviously cached for ulterior purposes and stood chatting up an Yves Saint Laurent model known to the rags as a poseur. Nico didn’t care. He had other uses in mind for her physical talents.
“The lights are very bright in here,” I remarked, joining the couple.
Nico’s eyes narrowed at what my words signaled. “Now?”
“Yes, they hurt my eyes.”
Miss Poseur giggled. “Essayez de lunettes de soleil.”
Sunglasses in a ballroom. She was a bright one. Nico gave a resigned shrug and moved away.
A circulating waiter offered champagne. I grabbed a flute to better blend into the relaxed crowd.
My arm jerked, hit from behind, and I watched, helpless, as the narrow glass arced in mid-air, then shattered on the marble floor. Icy shards narrowly missed the exposed heel of a delicately shod duchess. A waiter dashed toward us to pick up the sharp pieces. I could not believe this evening.
“I’m so sorry…” I started to tell the duchess. But my words dropped off as whoever had bumped my arm suddenly had a hand at my waist. I froze, the hair on the back of my neck rising as I turned to face him. Mr. Rhett Wannabe. Again.
The duchess gave me a cool smile. Her dismissive gaze skipped over my shoulder and softened, her features donning a flirtatious mask at the man behind me. He leaned in and murmured apologies into her ear, causing her to giggle like a schoolgirl.
I didn’t know which made me madder, his inescapable grip or the way this “Southern gentleman” both restrained and ignored me. “Do you mind?” I spoke to Teal Eyes between clenched teeth. Creating a scene was out of the question. This job demanded a low-key persona.
But he still ignored me, continuing to converse in perfectly accented Parisian French.
With a gay laugh, the duchess raised a sparkling hand to pat his cheek and turned away, never acknowledging I was even in the ballroom. My inner child felt extremely slighted.
Before I could twist free, his other hand vised on my right arm and steered me toward the two-story glass doors that led to an elegant stone balcony.
“Let’s go out on the terrace.” Teal Eyes lifted a jet eyebrow in a Clark Gable gesture. “The lights against the dark sea should be lovely. Don’t you think?”
“Does it really matter what I think?”
“Glad you agree.”
Nico was a step behind us. I gave him a slight shake of my head. While my Southern Charmer was clearly not what he seemed, if I ran now, too many questions would remain unanswered. Who was he? Who did he work for? Had he killed my contact? I knew I needed to get out of there before the dead man in the lavatory was found, but I didn’t know how worried I should be about Mr. Teal Eyes. And this might be my best chance to get a little background on the man. It was becoming clear he was on someone’s payroll. No one in my business made himself this obvious without a reason.
Nico stood back while I obediently followed Southern Charm’s lead. Strains of Isham Jones’s and Gus Kahn’s “It Had to Be You,” my late grandfather’s favorite song, wafted overhead, continuing a pattern of music for the evening as varied as the guest list. Only minutes before, the crowd had been doing its best Mick Jagger impersonations to a pounding interpretation of “Honky Tonk
Any other time I would have been enjoying the cosmopolitan crowd gathered to raise money for the latest Italian restoration effort. International wheeler-dealers, like my late grandfather, appreciated the historic value of the old artists. Contributing a portion of the night’s “winnings” was a small price to pay for the honor of seeing family names on appropriate plaques.
Of course, the loss of said family fortune by a father who bet on anything that moved meant I had to work for a living. Something that raised eyebrows in “our crowd.” Hence, getting my name on the guest list meant more than just wrangling an invitation.
The terrace was void of other patrons as we approached. Better for the inquisition I had in mind, but also easier to end up like my unfortunate contact. Not for the first time that night, I cursed the fact that my Giorgio couture was not designed to conceal a .38.
“Is this dogged persistence the line you usually take? The only way you can get a lady to yourself?” I opened.
“A lady would have been much more diplomatic when she rejected my advances.” He took me near the edge of the terrace, and as far as possible from any eavesdropping guests. Nothing like great wealth to bring out the nosiness in people.
“So you recognized the rejections for what they were, but kept advancing,” I responded.
“All I did was strike up a conversation.”
“And ask me to dance, and offer me drinks, and shanghai me out into the Italian night with some line that probably came out of a bad romance novel.”
I jerked out of his grip and moved toward the rock wall that separated the balcony floor from a sudden trip to the beach far below us. I paced as I continued. “Besides, where did you pick up that pitiful drawl? It never really worked for Gable, and you don’t have the charisma to pull it off.”
He stepped closer, stopping a few feet short of the rock barrier. He grabbed my right wrist with his left hand. I continued moving, deliberately taking a couple of steps too many. The pointed heel of my shoe accidently landed in the middle of his Italian loafer. Hard.
I heard a quiet oath as he dropped my wrist and swung his right arm. My stiffened forearm thwarted the potential blow, and I shot a leg out, aiming for his knee.
My foot never made contact. Reflexes better honed than mine reacted even faster. He flipped my foot heavenward and I overbalanced, falling backward onto my…
Well, let’s just say the stone floor proved every bit as uncomfortable as it looked.
He then had the nerve to reach out a hand to help me up. Unbelievable. Knocking it aside, I scrambled to my feet, but couldn’t keep from rubbing my injured anatomy. Adding salt to the wound, he didn’t even bother rubbing the foot I knew must be throbbing.
His drawl was replaced by a clipped English accent when he spoke again. “So the little lioness knows how to fight. I wonder what else she knows.”
“Oh, I took self-defense courses with the rest of the ladies in my neighborhood,” I said, smiling at the explanation I’d so often used. “Let’s forget about me and talk about you. I notice you have a penchant for accents. First, Rhett Butler, then Maurice Chevalier, and now the Prince of Wales. What’s next? Vladimir Putin? Look, I’m tired. Why don’t you just tell me what you want, why you’ve been dogging me all night, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll let you walk away without taking exception.”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing about you,” he said, only addressing the first part of my question. “You work a room quite nicely. In fact, the first time I saw such orchestrated movements was at a little soiree in Monaco about six months ago. Of course, the woman there was a graceful redhead, but…”
I kept my features a poker-faced mask as I waited for him to go on.
He took a deep breath and leaned against the railing. “Then three months ago, I was at a party on a yacht anchored off Crete when I noticed a sleek brunette laughing up at a man, obviously her lover, as they drank bubbly in the moonlight. Everyone has certain movements they make over and again. A living fingerprint if you will. Your gestures are unmistakable, like the way your teeth worry your bottom lip, removing your lipstick.”
Startled, my teeth released my errant lip. Damn. He was right.
He chuckled then raised his right hand. “Yes, I would swear in a court of law that the redhead at the baccarat table and the brunette with her lover were the same long-limbed blonde I’m staring at right now.”
I knew that yacht party. It was the last time I’d been with Simon Babbage, my mentor and the head of European operations for the Beacham Foundation. The last time we’d been a couple. The event hadn’t gone well for us. Simon and I spent that weekend tiptoeing around facts we both recognized, the affair had run its course. We’d been playing a part with each other as much as with the rest of the crowd. Everyone was there to appease a philanthropist who suddenly became too busy to fund foundation projects. It was also when a Dutch Master slipped out of circulation and into “the other realm.” I’d always wondered if Simon and I could have stopped the theft if we hadn’t been preoccupied with our own concerns.
I didn’t remember Teal Eyes as a member of the party, but I decided to brazen it out. “You must be mistaken. I know I’ve never seen you before or I would have…”
“What? Run the other way? Grab me with both hands? Search and seize me?”
I looked at my watch. Where the hell was Nico? When I motioned him to stay behind I didn’t think I had to remind him to watch in case I needed rescue. Who the hell was this guy?
“Who the hell are you?” I voiced my thoughts aloud.
He pulled a cheroot from the inside pocket of his jacket and lit a gold Dunhill lighter. “They call me Bond. James Bond.”
It took everything I had to keep from slapping him. “Look, your fairy tale was flattering. Obviously I’m the girl of your dreams, but I’ve never been near Monaco, nor has my hair ever been red. Maybe you should have your eyes checked. Or see a therapist. I’ll pardon your behavior on the grounds that you thought you recognized me. In the meantime, I’d like to salvage the rest of this night. If you’ll excuse me…”
There was a sudden shift in atmosphere between us. I had about three seconds of “civil” left before he sprang into whatever action he’d followed me here for. I got two steps from the open French doors before his viselike grip had my elbow again.
“Excuse me, if I may interrupt?” An unexpected voice came out of one of the terrace’s dark corners.
Relief flooded through me when I recognized the indeterminate accent of our host. As the suave billionaire approached, someone fired a roman candle from the beach, briefly illuminating the man’s gentle curiosity with exquisite pyrotechnics. The aging playboy directed an apologetic smile in my direction, then turned to Teal Eyes.
“Claudio is looking for you, my friend. The game is about to start, and we’ve been unable to find several of those who reserved seats. Will you go at once, or shall I inform them you’ve been delayed?”
“I’ll be there shortly, Giovanni.” My captor’s southern drawl was firmly back in place, and his tone remained even. However, the momentary tightening of his hand on my arm told me here was a man who hated to be questioned or have his plans altered. He dropped my arm and smoothed down his jacket, limping slightly as he reentered the ballroom.
Alone at last, I headed straight for the wall and removed my stilettos before my feet hit the sand. Nico was on his own. I declared myself officially off duty.
I phoned Nico as soon as I was safely down the beach. He grabbed the car and picked me up along the road to town. Max blustered when I phoned, but he quickly understood the situation and promised to handle the details, like contacting the authorities and notifying the interested parties that the snuffbox had disappeared.
“You’re heading for Genoa, right?” I asked when Nico stopped to let me out at my hotel.
“Yes. I need to meet someone, then I head back to London.”
“You as well.”
He waited until I was inside before he pulled away from the curb. I went upstairs to grab my luggage and head for the Malpensa Airport.
Two cabs, a plane flight, and one Tube ride later put me at Heathrow on my way toward a promised vacation that began the next morning. A week in a lovely B and B on Lake Tahoe. One whole week of soft pillows, fluffy duvets, and the crisp, clean mountain air I remembered from childhood visits. Even white sun and millionaire beaches pall after the steady diet I’d been on. I wanted the mountains. I wanted to feel the seasons change. I wanted my first break in four years.
The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” echoed from my red Prada purse and my heart sank. I debated not answering. I cursed myself for even having turned the phone on when we landed.
It had to be a new assignment. Everything else I’d worked on lately had been completed on time as promised. Except, of course, the last job, but the circumstances had left me no option but to abort. I squeezed the cellular, wishing the stranglehold would stop the signal.
The phone stopped ringing. For some psychotic reason I felt equally glad and fearful.
I didn’t want a new assignment. I wanted the quiet vacation I’d been promised. I wanted to start writing a novel, even a silly trashy novel—anything that would be created and completed without second- or third-party suggestions or directives. A solitary luxury I had yet to experience. It had been four years since my last vacation.
The ringtone resumed its impatient eighties rock scream.
No one had to tell me I was good at my job. There was no one better. But I didn’t care anymore. This was like one more cancelled birthday party because Daddy was drunk again. I didn’t want to hear it.
With suppressed fury, I stabbed at the faceplate of the “smart” phone. If it’s so smart, why did it accept this call?
I wasn’t surprised when Max’s voice bellowed incoherently through the speaker.
“Calm down, Max.” I held the thing out in front of me and screamed to be heard over his tirade. “I can’t possibly understand a word you’re saying until you bring the volume down several hundred decibels.”
“Where the hell have you been?” he screamed, loudly enough that the woman standing next to me jumped. “Damn it, Laurel. You have an obligation to this organization. I should not have to listen to forty-nine rings before your phone is answered.” My boss had a tendency toward hyperbole, and could chew up workers faster than George Foreman did justice to a plate of ribs.
Having survived a half-dozen years in the trenches carrying Max on my back, I knew giving excuses would do little more than fuel his volcano of self-righteous anger. But I also had no intention of becoming someone’s idea of a virgin sacrifice, either—not that I even met the chief qualification.
“I’m in the middle of Heathrow. And, I might note, every person within a three-foot radius of me can hear you yelling.”
This did the trick. The man valued privacy above all other things. “Laurel…ah, well…sorry…I ah…”
“You have a job, right?” Might as well cut to the chase.
“Yes, exactly. A pickup. You have two days to retrieve the object. I’ve already had the instructions sent to your email.”
“I’m on vacation.”
“But Laurel, I need you for this assignment—”
“There has to be someone else who can handle it.”
I knew he was shaking his head even before I heard the answer. “No, this pickup has to be done by you. I can’t trust anyone else with it.”
“Why? What is it?” His histrionics didn’t convince me; I’d heard it all before. But until I knew the specifics I couldn’t suggest an alternative courier.
“Sixth-century jeweled sword and scabbard.”
The man knew I despised handling items of war. No matter the age, I could always feel the tremors of the poor victims. And it never failed. The more bejeweled the hilt, the more blood known to have been wiped from the blade.
“Laurel, I know how you feel, but this time it’s di—”
“I’m not carrying any more weapons. I don’t care how old and valuable they—”
“Laurel, it’s believed to be Arthur’s,” Max shouted.
I narrowed my eyes at the phone. “Arthur who?”
“You’re pulling my leg. You don’t seriously mean…”
“Yes.” Smug self-satisfaction colored the simple word, right over the technologically advanced wireless communication. “Our source has what is quite possibly the sword of King Arthur.”
“C’mon, Max. King Arthur and that whole roundtable storyline is a legend. A nice one, I agree, affording the Brits a few more tourists each year. But nothing has ever been proven.”
Even as I argued with good sense and logical words, I had to admit I was intrigued. Just about any piece from that relative time period would be quite a find.
“A well-preserved parchment, not yet validated but to all cursory appearances a document from around the sixth century, was discovered with the sword,” Max explained. “Word is, it looks like it could be the real thing. Everything must be authenticated, but without the items that cannot be done.”
“Where was it found?”
“In an iron box set below the cornerstone of what had been a minor ancient church. The area’s been one of England’s neglected ruins for centuries. A pair of local boys discovered it when they decided to dig a cave.”
They called my flight. I stood and grabbed the handle of my carry-on bag. Even as I walked toward my gate, however, something nagged at me, something I knew he was holding back. “How were we contacted?”
“Wyndham-Hall heard about it and passed on the information.”
“Who did the negotiations?”
“Babbage. In fact, he’s the one holding it now. You’ll need to contact him at the London office.”
“Who else knows about this?” My question was met by dead silence, which gave me positive proof there was something nasty about this. The only times my boss goes quiet are when he’s trying to keep something from me.
The airline attendant looked at my first-class boarding pass and blue passport, then waved me through. I prodded harder. “Out with it, Max.”
“We, uh, understand information about the piece has been leaked to Moran.”
Damn. That man could steal your eyelashes without your noticing it.
“And someone else, Laurel,” Max said, a strange note in his voice. “Someone new. I don’t have all the particulars yet, but a man of around thirty was asking after the boys and their treasure.”
“But you don’t have a name?”
“Not even a good description. You can see now why you are best for the job.”
“Yes.” Why fight the inevitable?