Uncommon Criminals, Page 2Ally Carter
“This is private enough,” Hale answered.
“But—” the guy started, but then Kat placed her elbows on the table.
“Who are you and why are you looking for me?”
“My name is Constance Miller, Miss Bishop,” the white-haired woman said. “Or, may I call you by your given name? I feel as if I know you—you and Mr. Hale.” She smiled at Hale. “Such a lovely young couple.” Kat shifted on her seat, but the old woman went on. “I’ve become something of a fan.” She sounded almost giddy, as if her whole life had been comprised of bake sales and Agatha Christie novels, and now she found herself inside the latter.
“I mean to say,” the woman went on, “that there’s something I would like for you to steal.”
“Oh, Marshall,” the woman said, patting her grandson’s hands, “they’re professionals.”
Hale raised his eyebrows and smirked at Kat. Kat kicked him and gestured for the woman to go on.
“But, Grandmother, they’re…” He glanced across the table and dropped his voice. “Kids.”
“You’re twenty-five,” she told him.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
She shrugged. “To me, you’re all children.”
Kat didn’t want to like this woman. Affection makes people get sloppy, take risks. Do favors. So Kat didn’t allow herself to smile. She just focused on the single thing she really had to know.
“How did you meet Visily Romani?”
“He came to see me in London two weeks ago. He was familiar with our situation and said that you—”
“What did he look like?” Kat found herself leaning across the table, pushing closer to the only person she’d ever met who’d looked Romani in the eye. “What did he say? Did he give you anything or—”
“Have you ever been to Egypt, Katarina?” the old woman asked, but didn’t wait for a reply. “I was born there.” She smiled then. “Oh, it was a beautiful place to be a child. The cities were alive and the deserts were so big and vast—like the ocean, you see. We slept under big white nets and played in the sun. My father, he was a brilliant man. Strong and brave and gutsy,” the woman said with a shake of a fist. “He was an archaeologist—he and my mother—and in that day…well…in that day, Egypt was the only place to be.”
“That’s nice, ma’am, but I believe you said something about—” Hale started, but the woman kept on going.
“Some looked at the sand and the sun and said it was a barren, uncivilized land. But my father and mother, they knew that it is not the surface of a place that matters. Civilization is not made out of sand—it’s out of blood. My parents searched for years. Wars raged, and they searched. Children were born, and they searched. The past, it called to them.” Her gaze shifted into space. “As I guess now it calls to me.”
Kat nodded and thought of the treasures stolen more than a half century before, paintings she had never seen that she longed to touch and hold.
“Grandmother,” Marshall said softly, laying a hand on the woman’s shoulder, “perhaps we should get you some tea.”
“I don’t want tea! I want justice!” Her frail fist banged the table. “I want that man to lose his stone just like my parents lost everything they had!”
“Stone?” Hale said, sitting straighter. “What stone?”
But the guy didn’t even acknowledge the question. “Come, Grandmother, if the best lawyers in England can’t help us, what are two kids—”
“Kids who robbed the Henley,” Hale added. Kat kicked him under the table again.
“—supposed to do about it?” Marshall finished.
“My parents found it, Katarina.” Suddenly, the woman’s hands were reaching out to hold Kat’s thin fingers in her own. “They found it—a hundred kilometers from Alexandria, just a stone’s throw from the sea. They found it—one of the treasure chambers of the last pharaoh in Egypt.”
“The last pharaoh…” Kat started.
The woman sighed and whispered, “I suppose you might know her better as Cleopatra.”
When Kat’s fingers began to tingle, she didn’t know if it was the woman’s words or her grasp that numbed her.
“Oh, it was a glorious sight. Cleopatra had known her empire’s days were numbered, and she’d taken great care to hide her finest treasures from the Romans. The chamber was the largest my parents had ever seen. Urns and statues and gold…so much gold. I remember playing hide-and-seek with the diggers in mountains of gold so high, they might as well have been made of sand.”
She unclasped the purse that sat on her lap and drew a faded black-and-white photograph from the inner lining. Her hands seemed especially frail as she held it, staring down at a memory.
“That was the happiest I’d ever been,” the woman said, holding the photo out to Kat and Hale like an offering. Kat leaned across the cheap diner table and studied the image of a young girl in a white dress standing among the treasures of a queen.
“What happened?” Hale said again.
“Kelly…happened,” the grandson spoke, and the sound of that name was all it took to wipe the smile from the woman’s face.
“I never liked him, and you should always trust the instincts of children,” she said, then laughed softly. “But I suppose you already know that.”
Kat nodded and said, “Go on.”
“Well, my parents found the chamber, and three days into the documentation process, my mother went into premature labor with my brother. It was terrible. We almost lost both of them. But my parents had discovered the find of their careers, so they were happy. My father had a young assistant whom he left to oversee the work while my mother recovered. Two weeks, my parents were gone. Two weeks.” The last words she said no louder than a whisper. “Do you know how much your life can change in two weeks?”
Kat felt Hale’s leg pressing against hers under the table, but neither of them said a word. Neither of them had to.
“He took it all, Miss Bishop. In the two weeks my mother lay near death, my parents’ assistant took everything they’d worked for their entire lives.”
“He claimed the find?” Kat guessed.
“Worse,” the woman said. “He packed everything up and began to sell it. Not one piece was logged. Nothing was chronicled or examined. Artifacts were crammed into steamers and hauled across the Mediterranean. History was sold to the highest bidder at a time when the world paid very well for the treasures of the kings. Or queens, as the case may be.”
Then the woman reached for a handkerchief, but she didn’t start to cry. She just studied Kat and Hale and told them, “My parents were discredited and penniless—the laughingstock of the archaeological world. The find of their careers was gone—taken by the person they’d trusted most.”
“But surely they’d told people?” Hale didn’t even try to hide the skepticism in his voice. “Surely someone knew what they’d been working on and what they’d found.”
“Oh, but it was a wild place, Mr. Hale. Those were dangerous times. Looters were everywhere—grave robbers, treasure seekers. Real archaeologists were incredibly careful with their work. Secrecy was paramount.”
“But after…” Kat started.
The woman huffed. “After? After, they were broken and abandoned. After, they had nothing but their pride and their children. I, Miss Bishop…My brother and I were the only things they carried out of that sand, and soon I too will turn to dust.” She took a deep breath, and her delicate hands gripped the handkerchief tighter. “It is too late for my parents to have what was theirs. But it’s not too late for Egypt to have what is Egypt’s.”
She placed her palms on the table and leaned forward, a new urgency in her eyes. It was the look of a woman with a purpose—a plan.
“There is a museum in Cairo that will take the stone if I can deliver it to them. They should have had it a half century ago, but better late than never.” Then she stopped. She seemed to be studying Kat anew when she said, �
��It must be a wonderful feeling to take something beautiful and return it to its rightful home. Wouldn’t you agree, Katarina?”
“What…” Kat shook her head. “What did Visily Romani tell you about me?”
“That you steal things.” Again, the woman gave a soft laugh. Kat tried to see something of the girl from the picture in her eyes, but too much time and sun and sand stood between them.
Hale sat up a little straighter. “Your parents’ assistant’s name was Kelly?”
The woman smiled. “Yes.”
“Oliver Kelly?” Hale asked.
The woman laughed again and searched Kat’s eyes. “Yes, Katarina, the founder of the world’s greatest auction house was a coward, a plunderer…a thief.”
Outside, a cold rain was falling. Kat could hear the drops landing against the diner’s windows, and she thought of Warsaw and the look in Abiram Stein’s eyes as he’d talked about war and Nazis and paintings.
“Look at that picture, Katarina.” The woman slid the snapshot farther across the table.
“It’s a lovely—”
Kelly. Egypt. Cleopatra. The words filled the room like the aroma of coffee and sound of the rain. Kat looked down once more and saw a little girl in a long white dress, an ornate room, two tanned hands, and the largest gem that Katarina Bishop had ever seen.
“So this is—”
The grandson swallowed. “Yes.”
“And you want us to—”
“Your friend Mr. Romani assured us that you’re perfectly qualified. If it’s a matter of financing, I’m afraid our legal efforts have left us rather poorer than we once were, but we have some assets we could liquidate. This”—the woman gripped an antique locket that hung from a chain around her neck—“I know a dealer who would give me five hundred pounds for it.”
“It’s not money,” Kat said, shaking her head. “It’s just that…you want us to track down and steal the Cleopatra Emerald?”
“The Cleopatra Emerald?” Hale added for emphasis.
“Oh yeah.” For the first time, the grandson smiled. “The one that’s cursed.”
It didn’t matter that it was raining when Kat and Hale left the diner—they waved Marcus and the long black car away. It felt good, somehow, to walk in the cold wind with their collars turned up, shivering against the dreary mist. Their thoughts, after all, were on Egypt and sand.
“They were nice.” Hale kept his hands in his pockets but raised his face to the sky, water pebbling on his skin.
“Yes” was Kat’s reply.
Kat laughed and turned automatically onto a narrow street. “Yeah.”
“And they seem like the sort of people who could really use help.”
“From someone good,” Kat offered.
“From someone stupid.” Hale stopped so suddenly that Kat walked past him. She had to turn to see him say, “But we’re not stupid, are we, Kat?”
“No. Of course—”
“So under no circumstances are we going to take this job?”
“Of course not,” Kat said just as the rain turned to sheets, hard and cold. Hale gripped her hand and pulled her onto a familiar stoop, under the shallow overhang of the roof above. She shivered, the wooden door at her back, while Hale leaned close, sheltering her, searching her eyes.
The windows of the brownstone were black, and the street was empty. There were no cars, no nannies pushing strollers or pedestrians jogging home. It felt to Kat as if she and Hale were the only two people in New York City. They could steal anything they wanted.
But I don’t steal anymore, Kat told herself. Don’t steal anything at all.
“No one’s home,” she told him.
Water clung to the corners of his mouth. “We could pick a lock. Jimmy open a window.”
“You know, I bet there’s a hide-a-key around here somewhere,” she tried to tease, but Hale had moved even closer. She couldn’t see the street. She couldn’t feel the rain. Her passport was in her pocket, and when he pressed against her, she could almost feel the stamps burning, telling the world that she’d been away from home a long time.
Hale’s hands were on her neck—warm and big and comforting. Strange and new and different.
Kat feared she hadn’t been gone long enough.
“Kat,” Hale whispered. His breath felt warm against her skin. “When you take this job, don’t even think about stealing that emerald without me.”
Kat tried to pull away, but the door was there, pressing against her back. “I’m not going to—”
But then she couldn’t finish because nothing was against her back. Kat found herself falling, reaching for Hale, but her hands grasped only air until she was flat on her back in the doorway.
“Hello, Kitty Kat.” Kat stared up at a familiar pair of long legs and a short skirt. Her cousin Gabrielle crossed her arms and stared down. “Welcome home.”
Kat hadn’t realized how cold she was until she found herself lying on the floor of the old brownstone. There was no fire in the fireplace, no lights in the parlor or on the stairs. For a second, it felt almost like a job, as if she shouldn’t be there. And maybe, she realized, she shouldn’t be.
“We didn’t know anyone was home,” Kat said.
Gabrielle laughed. “I could tell.”
Even in the darkness, Kat could see a glimmer in her cousin’s eyes. A glimmer of what, however, she didn’t dare to ask. She just watched Gabrielle turn and saunter down the long hall, moving through the shadows, weightless as a ghost.
When Kat climbed to her feet and followed, Hale at her back, she heard the squeaky floorboards, the moaning of the old house in the storm. It seemed too big. Too dark. Too empty.
“Wow. He really left,” Hale said, dismayed.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle reached the doorway to the kitchen and exhaled a short quick laugh. “I don’t think Uncle Bobby was too happy about it, either—no one thought Eddie would actually go all the way to Paraguay. But you’ve probably heard all about that.” She studied her cousin through the dim light. “You have talked to your dad, haven’t you?”
“Of course I have,” Kat said, reaching for the light switch.
When the lights flickered to life, Kat had to squint against the glare. She half expected her uncle to mysteriously appear, spoon in hand, complaining that she was late and the soup was cold.
“How is Paraguay?” Hale asked, oblivious to the ghost that Kat was sensing, squeezing past her and into the kitchen as if he’d been at home there his whole life.
“Okay, I guess,” Gabrielle said with a shrug. “Or as okay as a job this big ever goes. All hands on deck.” She sat down, threw her feet onto the table, and eyed her cousin. “Well…almost all hands.” She pulled a knife from her boot and an apple from a bowl and began to peel it in one long steady spiral. “So, are you guys gonna tell me what the big secret is?” She glanced from Kat to Hale then back again. “Because it looked like you were getting fairly cozy out there, talking about something. Or maybe you weren’t talking.…”
Kat felt herself start to blush, but before she could say a thing, Hale opened the refrigerator and announced, “Kat’s going to steal the Cleopatra Emerald.”
“That’s funny,” Gabrielle said. It took a moment for her knife hand to pause in midair. “It is funny, isn’t it?”
Kat’s gaze was burning into Hale. “I never said I was going to do it,” she told him. “I never said—”
“Of course you’re going to do it.” The refrigerator door slammed, and Hale turned. “I mean, it’s what you do now, isn’t it? Travel the world, righting wrongs. A one-woman recovery crew.”
Kat wanted to reply, but Gabrielle’s feet were already off the table, and she was leaning closer to Kat, knife in hand.
; “Tell me he’s joking, Kat.…Tell me you are not seriously thinking about stealing the Cleopatra Emerald.”
“No,” Kat said. “I mean…well…we just met this woman who says the emerald was really discovered by her parents—”
“Constance Miller,” Gabrielle filled in.
“You know her?” Kat said.
“I know everything there is to know about the most valuable emerald in the world, Kat. I’m a thief.”
“So am I,” Kat shot back, but her cousin just talked on.
“I’m serious. The Cleopatra Emerald is ninety-seven karats of crazy!”
Behind her, Kat heard Hale throwing open cabinet doors. “Where’s the microwave?”
“Uncle Eddie doesn’t have a microwave!” the cousins snapped in unison, but neither of them smiled. Neither girl joked. They kept staring at each other across the scarred wooden table that had seen the rise and fall of almost every major heist their family had ever done.
It seemed as fitting a place as any for Gabrielle to say, “You don’t want to do this, Kat. You do not want to forget that the Cleopatra Emerald is the most heavily guarded gem on the planet. It hasn’t even seen the light of day in thirty years.”
“I know,” Kat told her.
“Anybody with any sense would know that Constance Miller is an old recluse who’s almost out of money.” Gabrielle looked her shorter, paler cousin up and down. “And she must be especially desperate if she’s coming to you.”
“Thanks,” Kat said.
“And, most of all,” Gabrielle went on, “we real thieves know that the Cleopatra Emerald has been cursed ever since Cleopatra took the biggest emerald in the world and, in all her wisdom, decided to split it down the middle and give half to Marc Antony. Then he went off to battle the Romans—”
“And died,” Hale chimed in from behind them.
“Cleopatra kept the other half,” Gabrielle went on.
“And died,” Hale said again.
“And until the two stones are together again, they will bring nothing but death and destruction to whoever holds either one,” Gabrielle finished. She stood and stepped closer to her cousin. “So any good thief would know it’s cursed, Kat.”