Everyone breaks the rules eventually. It’s just that some of us make a career out of it.
Lingering by the bar, I sipped my Veuve Clicquot and, with the utmost subtlety, tugged at the short neoprene wetsuit concealed beneath my cocktail dress.
The warm September evening air swirled with lush jazz; the chime of crystal mingled with the laughter of socialites and millionaires. It was a graceful affair. But I, for one, was far from relaxed. My eyes roved the party restlessly and my nerves sizzled with anticipation. And fear.
My safety that evening hinged on my skills of deception. On my ability to conjure the illusion that I belonged at this party. Whether I got my assignment done, however, depended on an altogether different sort of talent: the particular skill-set I happened to be born with.
As always, I needed to keep my fear in check and stay focused on my goals. Do the job, Cat. Make it out of here alive. Don’t get arrested.
I tucked a short lock of my platinum blond wig behind my ear. A saltwater breeze teased the hem of my black Dolce & Gabbana gown. The party occupied the lido deck of a 280-foot luxury yacht moored in Seattle Harbor. Which should explain the wetsuit. Rule number one for every professional thief: always have as many getaway options as possible.
Now—before you judge too harshly, consider this: everybody in this world is guilty of something. Everybody has dirty truths they keep tucked in linen closets and shoeboxes, secreted away in diaries and letters and the dark alcoves of their minds. Maybe yours isn’t anything all that grievous. Maybe you just cheat a little on your taxes. Maybe you sneak into a different movie once you’re inside the theater. Or, perhaps your dark secret is something worse. The point is, sooner or later, everyone behaves badly. Some of us are just better at it than others.
I curled my way through multitudes of rich and beautiful people who were busy rubbing shoulders and sundry other body parts. My muscles were coiled tight as a librarian’s bun, my face was impassive. I watched for signs that someone suspected what I was up to. The people at this particular party—and their hired security staff—would not react well knowing someone like me was in their midst. Weapons would be drawn. Blood would be shed. This was a state of affairs I preferred to avoid. Just thinking about it made the hairs at the nape of my neck curl with sweat. My mouth felt dry; I took another sip of champagne.
Maybe this was a mistake. I glanced at the exit points. Should I really be attempting this tonight? It was risky pulling a job on the night of a gala.
But no–I was prepared. Besides, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity—it meant too much to me. I had to do this. I couldn’t back down now. This could be the job that would finally banish the shadow.
I selected a vantage point on the upper deck and wrapped my palms around the cold chrome handrail. Stars dazzled in a tuxedo sky high above, reminiscent of the shimmering gowns and sparkling flutes of champagne below.
I kept my face expressionless and methodically scanned the glittering party below me. Glamorous young things lounged on curved banks of white tufted leather sofas, orchids spilled out of crystal vases, hundreds of fairy lights twinkled along the sleek lines of the yacht.
I was scouting for telltale signs: the distracted expression of someone listening to an ear-receiver, unusual body language, a waiter or a musician who looked strangely uncomfortable. Markers of a person who could interfere with my ability to do my job tonight, be it security staff, FBI, or—worse—one of those damned concerned citizens.
Then my stomach tightened: was that red-haired man by the oyster bar watching me? I narrowed my eyes and slid to my left, concealing myself behind a post. There was something odd, something furtive about the small actions of his hands. He was standing beside a woman, his date or girlfriend, but he seemed to be avoiding her gaze. Very strange. The set of his jaw betrayed a degree of anxiety. I bit down on the inside of my cheek. Then, I saw him reach into his jacket pocket and a small Tiffany box appeared in his hand.
Ah. I rolled my eyes and focused my attention elsewhere. He was going to propose tonight. Fine. Not interesting.
I continued raking the crowd of partygoers. But as I did so, I must confess to a small twinge of envy. As they sipped their mojitos and nibbled their canapés everyone looked so, well, relaxed. I glanced back at the couple by the oyster bar.
For a moment I considered stuffing this assignment and simply enjoying myself, perhaps trying my chances at meeting my own Prince Charming equivalent, of which there appeared to be plenty.
No, Cat. I scolded myself and pushed those thoughts firmly from my mind. That was not for me. I had to get this job done. Besides, the truth was, people like me were not destined for storybook endings. Dreams of the moon belonged to much worthier people; I’d abandoned those hopes a long time ago.
No. This girl didn’t deserve the fairytale. It wasn’t usually the villain who got the happily-ever-after.
A white-gloved waiter approached and, after mentally clearing him as a non threat, I accepted a divine smoked salmon crostini from his silver tray. I smiled at him, confident in my disguise: the wig, of course, plus chocolate-browncolored contact lenses and painstakingly applied theater makeup conveying much sharper cheekbones than I myself, sadly, possessed. I took a mouthwatering bite of the crostini and allowed a small shiver of delight. Another fringe benefit to the job.
On the surface, becoming a crook is an ill-advised choice. I get that. Very few people would see the appeal and, fair enough, it’s not a way of life that would suit everyone. But let me assure you: it’s a thrill like no other. And isn’t that what we all want, ultimately? A life purpose that we’re good at, and that we love?
Of course I’m making it sound like I had a choice in the matter. As if being anything other than a criminal was an option for me. It wasn’t. The universe made it clear, long ago, that being a thief was my role in this life. Bucking that fate was not only futile, it brought dire consequences. I know. I had tried it.
At the party, I popped in one last bite of crostini and was on the move again. I buried myself in the crowd and wove my way to a less populated area of the party on the aft deck. I needed to choose my moment precisely. It was a matter of sharpening my awareness of other people’s attention. I needed to have a clear perimeter in my peripheral vision, to know there were no eyes directly on me.
But although the crowd here was thinner, there were still a lot of people. I experienced fresh anxiety about doing this job tonight. It was never my first choice to do the actual heist on the night of a gala. Too many potential complications. Most crooks will tell you: parties are better suited for reconnaissance.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have an option. Davis Hamilton Jr, the steel magnate, sailed the Elysia into Seattle this morning and he was staying one night only. The next morning he would sail down the coast for California and I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity. I had done that before; it would never happen again.
Then, I noted that in the nearby knot of people a man was entertaining the group with an anecdote. I readied myself–this would be my chance. As he wrapped up the story and delivered the punchline, the group was laughing and distracted. That was my moment. I made a sharp right turn, melted into the shadows, and dove down the steps leading belowdecks.
The corridors were dark, narrow, and quiet. The ceiling hung low. The layout of the yacht and its suites was firmly etched in my mind, memorized from the blueprint. Fourth door on the left, just after the corridor took a sharp right turn. I was skulking along when a large, lumpy man suddenly emerged from a doorway and lurched out, smashing into me. Damn.
I’d have to bluff it. “Oops!” I giggled, stumbling against the wall. “Where’s the little girls’ room?” I said with an intentional slur. The man possessed an unfortunate physique: slopy shoulders and barrel torso. His small eyes were too close together, his teeth tiny and spaced apart, like those of a third-grader.
Unfortunately, the man moved closer. And started leering. “Hey, sweetheart, what’s your hurry?” A hot cloud of liquor-spiked breath floated my way. And now I had a problem.
Memo to self: Take a moment, next time, to size up your audience before knee-jerking into drunk, giddy female bit.
“What’s your name?” he said, taking another step closer. I cringed. Even an expensive suit couldn’t minimize the impact of hair like a Brillo pad. Why, oh why, was it always this type? Why couldn’t this be that Hugh Jackman-lookalike I noted by the Jacuzzi upstairs? I was sure I wouldn’t have been quite so irritated.
This was exactly the sort of thing I was afraid of. I should have aborted the job, right then.
But I didn’t.
I put a hand firmly on his shoulder, to stop any further advances. “Just slow down, there—”
He glanced down at my hand on his lapel. “Uh oh—wedding ring?” he said, cross-eyed gaze focused on the cheap plastic, fake diamond ring on my finger.
I flinched and pulled my hand away, tucking my ring within my fist. No, genius, it’s not a wedding ring. Not on my right hand. But to me, it was no less meaningful than if it were. That ring had been on my finger since I was fourteen . My heart constricted at the thought of who should be wearing it. An old wound opened, and gnawed like a raw tooth nerve. My sister’s ring, her lucky charm. What a cruel joke that turned out to be.
At the mention of the ring, however, my resolve became firm again. I had to do this job.
“It’s not a wedding ring,” I said absently to my lumpy suitor. My eyes flicked over his meaty shoulder, looking for an exit, alert for witnesses. The longer I stayed there, the uglier it might get. I glanced over his form—should I attempt to take him down? I could knock him out, drag him into the supply cupboard I knew was four feet behind my left shoulder. Though I wasn’t confident he’d fit—
“So how come a girl like you isn’t married?”
My focus snapped back and I glared at him. Who was this guy—my mother? I’d have liked to tell him the real reason: a professional jewel thief tends to make poor marrying material. But getting into that can of worms was probably a bad idea.
It was time for me to get out of there. I needed a change of tactics. I clamped a hand to my mouth, opened my eyes wide, and did my very best to turn green. “Ooh. Rough waters out here.”
He hesitated and moved infinitesimally away from me. His left eyelid twitched, just a little. “Are you—um, going to be…”
To close the sale, I made a gagging sound. “Toilet—around here—somewhere?”
“Oh, er—go that way.” He beat it out of there, stumbling surprisingly quickly down the hall.
Within moments I arrived at my target: the master stateroom. I slipped on my gloves and tried the smooth nickel door handle. Locked. In the time it takes the average woman to rummage through an overstuffed handbag and locate her keys, I opened my Kate Spade clutch and withdrew my lockpick, cleverly disguised as a mascara wand, and had the door open. I slipped inside and closed the door.
It was dark and quiet, apart from the faintest throb of music from upstairs. A little light was coming from the bathroom, illuminating a king-size bed buried under a mountain of pillows. Raw silk curtains were artfully arranged along the far wall. Sparkling mirrors adorned the walls. The room smelled of aftershave, ammonia mirror cleaner, and money. And dirty money, at that. Davis Hamilton Jr. was widely known to have a lot of friends in the mafia. Real nasty pieces of work. I crept across the room toward the bathroom light, my feet sinking into the plush carpet, and peered through the crack in the doorway. Clear. Speed was my top priority; I was committed. Being caught in there would be tricky to explain. And in terms of escape, it was the worst spot to be. I had only one option available—through the ensuite window, back out to the starboard side of the lower deck. I knew this yacht like the back of my hand, thanks to the blueprint. The blueprint supplied by the Agency.
Oh yes, we’re very organized, here in our little corner of the underworld. Although people don’t realize it, most major thefts these days are executed by thieves working on commission, hired by an agency. The system has been perfected over the years.
Let’s say, as a hypothetical, you’re a gentleman of substantial means. Your wife’s got her heart set on a very rare, absolutely divine chocolate diamond pendant. You promise you’ll buy it for her. But the owner, irritatingly, refuses to sell. You’re in a bit of a pickle. That’s when you call the Agency.
Intake opens a file for you, and a thief is matched to the job. After that it’s pretty simple. The thief grabs the diamond, you pay the Agency, and the Agency pays the thief a fee. It’s very businesslike. Very clean.
Once upon a time, thieves and burglars worked freelance. That is, no connection to an agency. But that’s messy work. Like trying to do your own bikini wax.
For one thing, you have to worry about selling the stuff you steal. Finding and dealing with a fence is a time-consuming and dicey business. There are a lot of unscrupulous double-crossers out there.
My particular agency is known as AB&T Inc. Officially, that stands for Anderson Bradford & Taylor Inc. Unofficially—and somewhat more truthfully—it’s the Agency of Burglary & Theft Inc. AB&T is the premier agency for thieves in Seattle. And it’s definitely the oldest—it’s been operating for generations. How many generations? No one knows.
I flipped out my penlight and started scanning the walls. The safe was in here somewhere, according to my intel. I spied a large oil painting. Degas, I believed. I tilted it and yes, sure enough: I found myself staring at a large steel square in the wall, a fat combination lock staring back at me. Please. How clichéd can you get? But no matter. It was time for a little safecracking.
Just as there’s more than one way to make a margarita, there’s more than one way to crack a safe. You could drill into the face of the lock and use a punch rod to push the door lever out of the way. There’s also the truly caveman method of slicing through the side of the safe using a plasma cutter. Or even worse, using a jam shot—a small explosive—to blow the door off the safe. But these approaches are terribly crude and leave the safe looking like cat food.
Me, I prefer to finesse a safe. My first choice is to manipulate the lock itself and gain entry without damaging the safe. Leave as few clues as possible.
Some professionals use a stethoscope to amplify the sounds of the contact points clicking into place. But I’ve always found that I can manipulate a lock better by feel than by sound. Even through gloves, my fingertips are highly sensitive. This was something, incidentally, that helped me realize being a thief was written into my genetic code.
In the hushed stateroom I removed the Degas from the wall. I needed free hands so I clamped my penlight between my teeth. It clicked against my incisors; there was a faint metallic taste. The light illuminated the safe door in a glowing gunmetal gray halo.
I gingerly took hold of the combination lock and began rotating the dial, searching for the contact area, the notch in the drive cam. As I worked, I could tell this lock was not going to particularly stretch my talents; it was a very basic safe. Typical. Splurge on the best champagne; scrimp on a crappy safe.
I kept going, methodically feeling for telltale clicks and formulating an image in my mind of the wheel pack, the pattern of the lock. I was in the groove. I was the Lock Whisperer.
At last, all the notches aligned. The lock sprang open. I was in. I shone my penlight inside the cave-blackness of the safe and like Aladdin, I was rewarded with the gleam and shine of jewels and gold. I rifled through, my hand caressing chains and brooches and pushing aside thick rolls of bills in various currencies. I unearthed an enameled jewelry box, opened it, and—ah, there we are, my lovely. I pulled out the diamond ring and admired it. The diamond was a golden yellow, big as an ice cube, like hard sparkling honey. Fire flickered inside the cushion-cut stone. This baby, eighteen carats, was the largest fancy yellow diamond ring in existence. And it had a pedigree. At one time it was part of the Iranian crown jewels, but it was smuggled across Iran’s borders with the revolution in 1979, sold and traded on the black market several times since then.
A feeling of triumph blossomed inside me. I knew this was a jewel that Brooke had coveted. Brooke—my one-time mentor turned vile betrayer. Not that any of that mattered anymore, because she would never get this stone. She was safely behind bars.
I took one last admiring look at the riches within the safe, but I left everything else inside. I closed the safe door, extinguishing the sparkles. The ring was the only item on my shopping list for today.
I had this little thing I called my “Thief’s Credo”:
1.Never steal from anyone who would go hungry.
2.Never steal anything that’s not insured.
3.Never steal frivolously.
For example, say I was shopping and I spotted a divine pair of Gucci sunglasses with a prohibitive price tag. Although I could have stolen them, I wouldn’t have. If I’d really wanted them, I would have bought them. This fell under the jurisdiction of guiding principle number three.
Generally speaking, I tried to keep stealing limited to my job, not my daily life.
I closed the safe with a soft clunk and gazed at the ring. My breath slowed and I bit my lower lip. Would it happen…now? If this jewel was, in fact, to be a talisman for me—the thing that released me from my guilt about Penny—would now be the moment I felt the change? I was balancing on a knife’s edge, waiting for some sort of shift, some kind of sign.
But—I didn’t feel anything different. I stared hard at the diamond; it represented a job accomplished, sure, but I felt nothing more than that. I frowned, confused and disappointed.
And then, I heard footsteps in the corridor. I froze. The footsteps grew louder.
The room went into sharp focus. My muscles contracted and my skin prickled with a sudden adrenaline blast. I needed an escape. Now.
I jammed the ring on my baby finger, over my glove. The door opened and I sprinted toward the bathroom. I leaped over the bed and heard someone enter the room behind me. The lights flicked on. I lunged for the bathroom door…I was almost there—
I heard a sharp intake of breath, and then the question every burglar despises:
“Hey! What the hell are you doing in here?”
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