Alex Peterson swirled his brandy and stared up at the Barrington family portrait. In the portrait, Naomi Barrington sat beside her husband, Henry. Both of them looked down their aquiline noses at a curly-haired blond girl, about eight years old, dressed in a froth of pink lace, grinning a gap-toothed grin.
A flesh-and-blood Naomi waved to Alex from across the room. She was at least ten years older than she had been in the portrait, and thirty pounds heavier. She broke away from a group of guests and took Alex’s arm. She looked up at the portrait. “Cynthia was such a lovely little girl, wasn’t she? I’ve often told Henry that I married him for his daughter. If ever a child needed a mother…” She shook her head. “But now…teenagers!”
Alex made a small sound of agreement. He’d never had children and hadn’t wanted them. “I think it’s time for me to leave, my dear. I have early appointments tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, already? I’m so glad you came.” She laughed, high and horse-like.
Alex set his brandy glass down and patted her plump hand. “Don’t leave your guests. I’ll see myself out.” He kissed Naomi’s powdered cheek and averted his eyes from the sparkling necklace that lay on her heavy bosom. Henry Barrington had been a jeweler by trade, so his skills and Naomi’s money had guaranteed a fabulous collection for the Barringtons. Just the sort of people Alex wanted to know well.
Alex moved to the quiet foyer and listened to the muffled voices coming from the ballroom. When he was sure no one had followed him, he slipped down the elegantly paneled hallway to the walk-in linen closet. This was his third party at the Barrington’s. At the first, he’d gotten Naomi’s grand tour of the house.
He glanced up and down the deserted hall, took a deep breath, and stepped inside the closet. He pushed himself under the lowest shelf and wrapped his arms around his knees.
Confident in his hiding place, Alex drifted into a light doze. He dreamed of the necklace Naomi had worn that night. A sparkling confection of square-cut emeralds and diamonds, it was called Queen’s Ransom. The story that the Barringtons loved to tell their guests was that Marie Antoinette had given it to Naomi’s ancestor in gratitude for a favor. But Alex knew a different version of the story–that Naomi’s ancestor had stolen the necklace from the French queen. Marie’s descendents had been searching for it ever since. And now he, a lowly criminal, had it within his grasp!
Alex had spent his earlier years in small-time pursuits–con man, pickpocket, purse-snatcher. He’d even once tried to earn a living honestly. But the life of a gentleman thief, who spent his evenings pandering to the wealthy and his nights plundering their riches, suited him better than any.
Hours later, Alex woke stiff and sore. He listened, but the house was quiet as a tomb. Holding his breath, he opened the closet door and peered out. This was the riskiest part of his plan. If he had been caught going into the closet, he could always claim he was looking for the bathroom. To be caught creeping around a house in the middle of the night would be disastrous. He was trusting that the wine Naomi and Henry had been so free with would keep them soundly asleep.
Alex felt his way down the dark hall, his feet silent on the thick carpet. He counted doors and when he got to the fourth, he knew he was at the library. He slipped inside.
Alex flipped on his tiny flashlight and blinked to adjust his eyes. He slid the beam across the room. He gasped as the light caught the slight, dark figure of a girl standing beside the desk. Then the desk lamp flicked on, bathing the room in sudden light. His heart trip-hammering in his chest, Alex squinted at the figure standing in front of him. The thin teenager’s hair stood up in tarry black spikes. Gold hoops ringed one ear and a small skull dangled from her earlobe. A tiny golden barbell was stuck through her plucked eyebrow, and her lower lip boasted a large diamond stud. She wore black leggings on her stick-thin legs and a bulky black jacket swallowed her upper body. She grinned a gap-toothed grin.
“You’re Cynthia!” His voice was a surprised whisper. He thought of the young girl in pink lace and compared her to the creature standing before him.
The girl took a step forward and put her hands on her narrow hips. “My friends call me Spike,” she said, her voice low and her head tipped at a cocky angle. When she spoke he thought he saw a gold spike pierced through her tongue. Her black-rimmed eyes narrowed. “Who the hell are you?”
Alex gave a low chuckle and tried to sound rueful. “Well, uh…Spike. I guess I had a little too much to drink. I came upstairs to get my coat after the party and fell asleep in one of the guest rooms.”
Spike raised her pierced eyebrow and gave him a withering stare. After a long moment, her hands went to her jacket pockets. “Bullshit!” she hissed. She withdrew something long and black.
Alex’s knees turned to jelly. He didn’t believe in violence–he always made it a point to do his jobs unarmed. But now he pictured his death–or worse, his arrest. Before his heart stopped pounding against his ribs, he saw that what she held was not a gun, but a long black jewel case. She waved it at him. “I think this is what you’re here for. Right?” She opened the box and he stared at green fire and diamonds. This teenager had Queen’s Ransom!
Alex’s mind quickly ran through the possible scenarios. He could act innocent and stick with his story while Spike called her parents and then the police. But this girl had the necklace in her pocket, and he was sure her parents didn’t know about that. Some of his confidence came back. He said, “Why do you have it, Spike?” His eyes followed the black box as it went back into her pocket.
Spike shrugged. “It’ll be mine someday. Step-mommy-dearest doesn’t wear it very often. She won’t even think about it again for months.” Alex noticed she kept her hand possessively in her pocket. “I just like to borrow a little money on it. Then I get it back in the safe before she knows it’s gone.”
Alex’s throat constricted. “You _pawn_ Queen’s Ransom!”
“What’s it to you?” She gave him a speculative look. “What were you going to do with it? You can’t exactly sell it on the open market. Do you have a collector who’s interested?”
After a long moment, Alex said, “There is a collector who’s interested. He’s always wanted that piece.”
Spike paced up and down the sculpted carpet. “Tell you what. If your collector really wants it, I’ll sell it to you.”
Alex’s heart leaped. This child wanted to make a deal! He tried to remain calm. “But it’s not yours to sell.”
She shot him a withering look. “It’s not yours to steal, either. Ten grand.”
Ten thousand dollars! Alex’s mind raced. Did she know what this thing was really worth? At least a hundred thousand on the black market. But to a desperate collector, it was priceless. He hadn’t planned to pay anything, of course, but he might do better to make a deal with the girl.
“All right. I need some time to get the money together.”
“We’ll meet in a public place in three days, then. At the City Park, at noon.” She grinned at him. “In front of the monkey bars on the playground.”
* * *
At the park, Alex was sure that she wouldn’t be there. But as he rounded the corner, there she was, standing out in her spiky hair and bulky black jacket. He sat beside her on the bench and they both stared at people passing by–young lovers, families, workers taking lunch. “Do you have it?” he asked.
Spike nodded. Her thin shoulders were hunched inside the big jacket and she looked small and vulnerable. “Naomi’s gonna suspect me, you know. I ought to charge you more.”
Alex looked at her sharply. “You aren’t having second thoughts, are you?”
She scowled and shook her head. She slipped her black-tipped nails into the pocket of her jacket and came out with the familiar black box. She held it open so he could see the fiery play of sunlight on the jewels. Beautiful! He took a jeweler’s monocle out and they hunched together over the box, trying to keep our prying eyes. Alex could smell peppermint and cigarettes on Spike’s breath. The girl kept the box firmly in her grasp while he examined the stones. The piece was perfect, stunning, a collector’s dream.
He sat back and reached for the box. “Not yet,” she said, sliding it into her pocket. “Show me the money.”
Feeling like a B-movie spy, Alex slid the envelope out of his own pocket and let her peer into it. She nodded and pulled the box from her pocket again, casually slipping it into his hand. To Alex’s right, a purposeful man in a suit approached. Alex put his arm around Spike, pulled her toward him, and hissed, “I think that’s a cop. Pretend you’re my girlfriend.”
They sat still for a moment, locked in an embrace. Through her heavy jacket, Alex could feel Spike’s heart beating like a frightened bird. The man passed without looking their way. Spike jerked away. She stood and straightened her clothes.
“Your girlfriend! More like your daughter! Pervert!”
Alex held up his hands. “Sorry. I was just being cautious.”
They parted and Alex drove to his small, secluded house. He disarmed the burglar alarm, let himself in the back door, and went down the steps to the basement. His house was inconspicuously plain on the outside, but his basement was a shrine to his obsessions. It was paneled in rich wood and carpeted with thick, expensive carpet. The only furnishings were glass cases shimmering with jewels and objets d’art.
He went to the display case he had prepared for Queen’s Ransom, fitted the jeweler’s monocle in his eye, and opened the jewel box. The necklace twinkled at him from its bed of black velvet. He examined it carefully through the jeweler’s glass. He stood motionless for a moment, hands shaking. Then he placed the necklace in the case and went to the telephone.
He dialed the Barrington’s number from memory. “You sold me a fake,” he said when Spike answered. “How did you do that? What I saw was the real thing!”
Spike laughed. “I did a little switch when I put it back in my pocket. All’s fair, you know? Besides, my dad worked hard on that copy! It’s worth at least three hundred dollars. Naomi isn’t very generous with her money, so Dad and I have to take care of ourselves. And we’ve only sold a few to interested collectors like you.”
Alex was silent. Finally he said, “Well, I can’t go to the police, can I? But Spike? You might find a few slips of green paper buried amongst the money I gave you. All’s fair, right?”
“You…” He heard her sputter as he hung up.
Alex walked back to the jewel case. “By the way, Spike,” he said to the empty room, “one of my early careers was pickpocket. When you put the real one in your pocket and gave me the fake, it was a piece of cake to switch them back when I grabbed you for a hug.” He admired the green fire for a moment. “My ancestor Marie Antoinette would be proud to have it back in the family!”