Perfect Scoundrels, Page 2Ally Carter
And through it all, Kat’s heart kept pounding. The clock kept ticking. So Kat pushed away from the window, zooming into the night.
The old brownstone in Brooklyn was not, technically, Katarina Bishop’s home, but Kat was a girl for whom technicalities rarely—if ever—applied. The building itself belonged to a corporation that was a part of a conglomerate that was purchased by a shell company in 1972, and won in a poker game in ’73 by Kat’s uncle Eddie.
And yet his name did not appear on any titles or tax rolls. Utilities were listed in the names of a half dozen different aliases and paid in full on the fifteenth of every month. As far as the city of New York was concerned, the building was the property of a ghost, a figment, a very prompt and responsible illusion. But Kat knew better. Kat knew the building belonged to a legend.
When she pushed open the back door and stepped into the kitchen, Kat was certain what she was going to find. The lights were on and the stove was hot. A pair of ancient Dutch ovens sat over low heat, but for the moment, she and Gabrielle were alone as they carried in the small crate that they’d brought from Buenos Aires.
Rich, sweet smells washed over Kat, so she sank onto a chair and put the crate on the table. They’d gone all the way to Argentina for the painting that lay inside, but Kat felt no sense of accomplishment or relief. The couriers would come for it tomorrow, and in the meantime, Kat was tired and drained and happy to be at least temporarily finished.
“Okay, Kitty Kat, spill it.” Gabrielle walked to the old refrigerator, threw open the door, and studied the food inside. “I’ve been beside you for five thousand miles, and, trust me…you’re in something of a mood.”
Kat thought about her cousin’s words, but she didn’t try to deny them. Changing the subject would be futile, and as tired as she was, there was no use in trying to run. So Kat rested her arms on the crate and her chin on her arms, and thought about all the things she didn’t like in that moment.
Her head hurt.
Her back hurt.
Her hands hurt (but that was her own fault for doing zip-line work with no gloves).
They were the typical aches and pains of any thief a day off the job, and none of them, Kat realized, could possibly compare to the pain inside her heart, so she took a deep breath and whispered, “Hale left me.”
“He didn’t leave you, leave you,” Gabrielle said. “He just made a rapid and ill-timed departure.”
“He left,” Kat snapped.
“He had a sudden change of plans.”
“Do I have to remind you, Gabrielle, that he left me hanging? Literally. Are you seriously not furious right now?”
“Oh, I’m mad at him,” Gabrielle said. She stirred the contents of the largest pot. “I’m just a little surprised that you’re mad at him.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, dear cousin, that I wouldn’t expect you to be angry. I would expect you to wonder why.…”
Kat had spent twenty-four hours and a very long plane ride across most of two continents fuming at Hale for running off without a moment of thought or a word of explanation. But Gabrielle was right.
Why would he leave so suddenly?
Why would he jeopardize her safety and their job?
Why would Hale, the boy who had been willing to do almost anything to be a part of her world for over two years, suddenly flee without a single clue as to where he might be going?
Somewhere in the house, a door slammed. The floor creaked. On the stove, the contents of the Dutch ovens began to boil. And Kat’s cousin raised an eyebrow.
“Are you going to tell him?” Gabrielle asked. “Or should I?”
“Tell me what?” the old man said, but he didn’t really stop for an answer. “Do not stir my goulash, Gabrielle.”
He moved to the stove slowly, like he’d been dozing in his easy chair and his legs weren’t quite working yet. But even with his gray hair and ratty, moth-eaten cardigan, there was something in Kat’s great-uncle’s eyes—a gravity that could make even a great thief tremble.
“So,” he asked again, “tell me what?”
“It’s good to see you too, Edward,” Gabrielle said in her uncle’s native tongue. Then she pulled a noodle out of one of the pots, plopped it into her mouth, and took her seat at the table.
“So, Katarina, what is wrong?” Uncle Eddie sprinkled some oregano into a pot and stirred, but didn’t look back. “Was it the access? High-rises can be tricky.”
“Access was fine, Uncle Eddie,” Kat said.
“The exit, then,” he said.
“The exit wasn’t a problem.” Kat ran her fingers along the rough pine of the crate, and didn’t bother asking how her uncle had known the details of the job in Buenos Aires. Uncle Eddie knew everything.
He eyed the crate on the table. Kat could see him calculating the value of the painting that lay inside when he asked, “And so you bring me a box I cannot have, and a problem I cannot solve, is that it?”
“The job was fine, Uncle Eddie,” Kat said. “It’s just that—”
“Hale ran off in the middle of it.”
“Gabrielle,” Kat snapped.
“What?” Gabrielle said. “It’s the truth. I’m sure Uncle Eddie won’t kill him. He’ll probably just maim him a little.”
“No,” Eddie said. “I won’t.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle said. “So he’ll maim him a lot. But Hale can take it. I’m sure between Eddie and your dad, Hale’s just looking at a few broken—”
“No, Gabrielle.” Eddie’s voice was stern. “I will do nothing of the kind.”
“But…” Gabrielle gave her uncle a confused glance.
“I value a young man who values family.”
“We are Hale’s family,” Gabrielle said.
“No.” Eddie picked up the newspaper that lay beside the stove and tossed it onto the kitchen table. “We’re not.”
Kat didn’t reach for it. She didn’t have to. The headline was big and bold and looming in black and white: WORLD’S SIXTH WEALTHIEST WOMAN COMATOSE IN MANHATTAN HOME.
“Is this…?” Kat couldn’t pull her eyes away from the photo that accompanied the words. The woman wore her white hair in an elegant updo, a diamond broach at the base of her neck, as she sat beneath a Monet that, if Kat were to guess, was most definitely the real one.
“That, my dear, is Hazel Hale,” Uncle Eddie said. “She is your young man’s grandmother.”
“She’s in a coma?” Gabrielle asked, turning the paper to get a better view.
“She was,” Eddie said. “At six o’clock this morning she died.”
Kat craned her neck and looked straight up at the building, utterly uncertain what to do. The height would not be a problem, of course, but there was something about the penthouse apartment that loomed over the east side of Central Park that left Kat feeling exposed and fragile. So she shivered, staring up, completely unsure how to find her way inside.
Oh, it would have been easy enough to purchase a bouquet of flowers, throw on an apron, and disappear into the parade of florists and caterers that had been filing in and out of the service elevators all morning. A window washer had left his rig on the third floor, easily within Kat’s reach. There were at least a half dozen ways for Kat to access the penthouse, but even Katarina Bishop knew there were some rooms she shouldn’t con or break her way into.
Besides, it was the only Hale family residence into which Kat had never been invited. Like a vampire, she felt that it would be almost impossible to enter. So she stayed on the corner, watching, staring at her phone.
“Hey, Hale,” she told the recording that answered when she tried his number, “it’s me. Again. Like I said in my last message, I’m back in the city and I heard about your grandmother. Hale, I’m so sorry.” Kat ended the call without another word.
Maybe he was busy.
Maybe he was sad.
Maybe he was grounded.
Maybe he was still in Argentina, lying in a roadside ditch an
d calling out her name.
Or maybe he was…
“Hale?” Kat said when she saw a pack of men emerge through the building’s glistening doors. They all wore dark suits and darker expressions, and they were so uniform in appearance that Kat almost missed the boy among their midst. She stared for a moment, uncertain at first that it was him. She’d seen him in so many situations—playing so many different roles—but Kat couldn’t help but realize that the boy who stood before her was someone she had never seen before.
The men were almost at the limo that sat idling at the curb, so she spoke louder. “Hale!”
Every man in the group stopped and stared.
“Sorry,” she said. “I meant that one.” She pointed to the youngest Hale on the sidewalk.
He stepped cautiously away from the others and asked, “Kat?” almost as if he didn’t recognize her.
“Hey,” she told him.
“Hey,” he said back. “How’s the Raphael?”
“Fine. Halfway to Mr. Stein and its rightful owner.”
“There were dogs,” Kat found herself confiding. “We hadn’t been expecting dogs, but they took one look at Gabrielle and fell in love, so…we made it.”
“Dogs and boys, right?” Hale laughed a little.
“Right,” Kat said and mimicked his smile. “We missed you.”
“Son?” one of the men said. He was tall, like Hale. Flecks of gray mixed among his black hair. He stood at the limo doors, speaking in Hale’s direction.
“Just a minute.” Hale called over his shoulder and kept his hands deep in his pockets.
“That’s your dad?” Kat asked, but Hale acted like he hadn’t heard.
“Kat,” he said, voice low, “what are you doing here?”
He looked and sounded a world away from the boy who had left her in Argentina.
She swallowed and told him, “I heard about your grandmother. I’m so sorry.”
“I tried calling, but…I was worried, Hale. You just disappeared.”
“Son?” Hale’s father called again.
The first black car pulled away from the curb, and another appeared almost as if by magic.
“Look, I’ve got to go. The funeral is upstate tomorrow, and we’re all going up there today, so…”
“Are you okay?”
“It’s good seeing you.” He headed for the limo, but called back over his shoulder, “Take care of yourself, Kat.”
And then he was in the car.
And then the car was melding into traffic and disappearing down the street.
Kat felt Gabrielle come to stand beside her, a cup of coffee in each hand. She gave one to Kat and blew on the contents of the other. “How was he?” Gabrielle asked.
“Different,” Kat said, not sipping. Not smiling. “He was different.”
Driving toward the big house in Wyndham Woods, Kat couldn’t help but think about the first time she’d ever been there. It had been dark, and she had been younger. But the biggest difference, it turned out, was that some places are far more intimidating when you approach them via the front door.
“Name?” the guard asked when Gabrielle pulled up to the gate.
“We’re here for the memorial service.” Gabrielle gestured at her black dress as if that should be explanation enough. Kat thought that perhaps Gabrielle should have chosen a longer dress if she’d truly wanted to send the right message.
“It’s a private ceremony.” The guard pointed to his clipboard. “Name?”
“We’re guests of Hale’s,” Gabrielle said.
“You’re going to have to be a little more specific,” the man told them.
“The Fifth,” Gabrielle added. “W. W. Hale the Fifth.”
“You sound very close.” The guard put his clipboard away.
“She’s his girlfriend.” Gabrielle jerked her head in Kat’s direction.
The guard leaned down to peer at Kat, then whispered to Gabrielle, “Between you and me, Mr. Hale the Fifth has a lot of girlfriends.”
“Well, between you and me—”
Kat leaned across her cousin and spoke through the open window. “Thank you.”
“It’s okay, Gabrielle. We don’t need to be let in.”
It was easy enough to park the car and climb the fence. Even in heels, Gabrielle didn’t complain about the long walk through the forest and short stroll across the vacant side of the yard. It was almost like nothing had changed, Kat thought, when she reached the top of the trellis, forced open the window, and slid inside the empty hall. But walking toward the railing at the top of the stairs, Kat immediately knew that she was wrong.
The first time she’d been in that building, it had been dark and quiet. Sleeping. But now the main floor was wide awake. Gabrielle peeked over Kat’s shoulder, stared at the crowd that filled the foyer below, and said, “I thought we had a big family.”
There were men in dark suits, women in black dresses and the occasional veil. And yet it didn’t look or feel or sound like a funeral, not with the clinking of glasses and waiters making their way through the crowd with champagne and caviar on silver trays.
It seemed to Kat that it had taken a death to make the big, abandoned house come alive.
“So,” Gabrielle said with a deep breath, “this is how the other half lives.”
“No, Gabs.” Kat shook her head. “This is how the other half dies.”
“I guess,” Gabrielle said. “I haven’t been to a funeral since…” She looked away, unable or unwilling to say your mom. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“No, seriously. I’m—”
“Let’s just find Hale,” Kat said and started down the stairs. Gabrielle fell into step beside her. “We should split up.”
“You sure?” Gabrielle asked.
Kat forced a smile. “Absolutely.” But as she watched her cousin walk away, she couldn’t stop herself from thinking about another day in another crowded room, when she’d sat between her father and her uncle Eddie, receiving guests, hearing condolences. Trying to ignore the fact that her mother was never coming home again.
But Kat didn’t want to think about that. She shook the memory from her head and started through the big house, wandering alone, almost invisible, until she found her way back to the painting that had brought her there years before.
“Do you want to know a secret?” someone asked, and Kat jumped, surprised to see a man standing behind her. He had white hair and a trim mustache. The buttons on his silk vest strained against the slight paunch around his middle, but his bow tie was perfectly straight. And behind Coke-bottle glasses, his eyes were bright and clear. Kat suddenly craved fried chicken.
“Excuse me?” she said.
The man looked around the crowd of people, who were indifferent to the girl and unimpressed by the painting, utterly unaware that at least one of them wasn’t what they seemed.
“It’s a fake,” the man said, then laughed a laugh that was completely free of pretension, utterly unself-conscious. To Kat, it seemed like the only genuine emotion in that big, cold room.
“Oh, is it?” Kat asked with a smile.
The man nodded. “Hazel had it made after she lost the original in a poker game.”
Kat laughed and, like Hale years before, she looked upon the painting—and the woman—with newfound admiration.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“I should be.” He leaned a little closer. “I’m the one she lost it to.” The man eyed Kat with amused interest. “Forgive me. Silas Foster. Friend of the family.”
“Kat Bishop,” Kat said, taking his outstretched hand. “Same.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Did you know Mrs. Hale well, Mr. Foster?”
He pondered for a moment before nodding. “You could say that. I met Hazel in…what was it? Spring of seventy-two, I guess. Of course, I was just a pup
researcher then, and she was the boss’s widow.” He gave a little laugh. “She got lost her first day on the job and ended up in my lab. Spent the rest of the day hiding in there, plotting her escape. I offered to make her a rappelling harness, but the lab was on the thirty-sixth floor and Hazel was afraid of heights, so…she respectfully declined.”
“You work at Hale Industries?” Kat asked.
“Director of Research and New Product Development.” The man gave a little bow. “I’m the idea guy.”
“I like idea guys,” Kat said.
The older man cocked his head and gave a laugh. “We get all the ladies. But for some reason I don’t think you’re here looking for me.”
“I don’t know,” Kat said. “I’m always in the market for a good rappelling harness.”
“For you, my dear, nothing but the best.”
“But you are right about something. I’m actually trying to find—”
“Young Mr. Hale, I’m assuming.”
Kat blushed. “Let me guess—I’m not the only one?”
“Maybe. But you’re the one I hope finds him.” He gave a wink and walked away, and Kat didn’t feel alone anymore in the big room full of people.
“That pervy old dude wasn’t hitting on you, was he?”
Kat studied the girl who was coming her way. Her hair was red and her eyes were as black as her dress. She wasn’t necessarily pretty, but she was striking just the same, and something about her made Kat stand up taller and blurt, “He wasn’t pervy.”
She wished she’d created a cover, a purpose. Because the role of uninvited girlfriend absolutely didn’t suit her.
“Well, you look…nervous.”
“No, I’m not nervous. I’m just…looking for someone.”
If possible, the girl studied her even more closely. She cocked her hip and eyed Kat from head to toe, and in her presence, Kat had never felt more like an outsider, a party crasher, the proverbial thief in the night.
She was just beginning to plan her escape, when the girl said, “You’re cute. Who are you?”
“Cool.” The girl wrapped her arm through Kat’s. “Come on, Cute Kat, we can look together. I’ll give you the tour.”
Walking arm and arm through the big living room, Kat expected to hear about the history of the house, maybe the story of the Ming vase by the window. She was surprised to see the girl gesture to a woman and three children sitting near the fireplace, then say, “On our left we have the West Coast Hales.”