Uncommon Criminals (Page 16)

He spoke English with a heavy French accent. He didn’t look up again until he’d finished.

“I will read a brief statement and then Mrs. Brooks has agreed to take questions.” He slipped on a pair of bifocals and studied a piece of paper, but the room stayed silent, transfixed.

“Three days ago, Mrs. Margaret Brooks was examining a collection of antiques procured by her late husband and recently shipped to her winter home near Nice, France. One of the pieces—an urn—broke in transit. It was then that Mrs. Brooks found a large emerald that presumably had been hidden inside. The stone is ninety-seven karats and of the highest quality. A team of experts is now en route to Monaco, where detailed appraisals, examinations, and verifications will take place. In the meantime, it is my expert opinion that—due to the size, quality, and cut of the emerald in question—what Mrs. Margaret Brooks has found is most likely the Antony Emerald.”

The man took a deep breath, as if he’d just dived off a cliff. “And now Mrs. Brooks will take questions.”

If the members of the press looked dumbfounded, their reaction was nothing compared to that of the four teenagers who sat watching it all unfold from thirty thousand feet. On the other side of the cabin, Simon’s slide show was still playing. Photos of every con woman that Interpol had ever known were flashing through the cabin, but none of them could hold a candle to the woman on the television then.

The matronly clothes and wig were gone, and when the woman spoke, her accent was big and brash and Southern. “First, don’t be like Pierre here. Y’all call me Maggie.”

“Maggie! Maggie!” the reporters yelled, vying for her attention.

“Well, y’all sure are going to a lot of fuss for one little ol’ rock.” She scanned the crowd, savoring the spotlight, before settling on one especially handsome international correspondent. “Sweetheart, what I can do for you?”

The entire crowd laughed as if on cue.

The man smirked. “Do you believe in the curse, Maggie?”

Again, Maggie eyed the younger man up and down. “Maybe I believe in fate. What’s your name, cutie?” she asked, but didn’t really wait for an answer. “Folks,” she said instead, leaning closer to the crowd and growing serious. “I’m from Texas. I’ve been hunting, shooting, and riding since I could walk. I’ve married and buried four men, each richer than the last—God rest their souls,” she added quickly, almost as if from habit. “So one little ol’ rock doesn’t scare me.”

“Why not keep it, Maggie?” another reporter yelled.

“I’m rich,” she snapped. “And I’m old. Now, they tell me that emerald can’t make me younger, but it can make me richer So one week from today, I’m gonna sell this thing to the highest bidder. And I’m betting someone’s gonna bid pretty high.” She made a move as if to leave.

“The Cold Shoulder,” Kat and Hale said together. It was a classic move. Simple. And very, very effective because the crowd yelled louder, “Maggie!”

“Yes.” She stopped and looked at them as if they were little kids and she couldn’t quite believe they hadn’t run away to play.

“How did it feel knowing your movers had broken a two-thousand-year-old urn?” yelled a reporter near the back of the crowd.

This time it was Maggie’s turn to laugh. “Like maybe I ought to let ’em break everything I own!”

“Do you think the emerald’s real?” one of the reporters yelled.

“Well, I didn’t imagine it.”

When the crowd chuckled again, Kat recognized the sound. It was the laugh of the mark—the sign that they adored you, they believed you, and they would hand you their grandmother’s pearls, the key to the vault. Anything. Everything. Because right then, they…were in love.

Maggie’s Southern accent might have been a fake (then again, maybe it wasn’t), but she was the belle of the ball and not a soul would dare deny it.

“Let ’em run their little tests, boys. I think we all know what they’re gonna find.”

Even after the press conference was over, the four teens sat perfectly still for a long time, trying to understand what they’d just seen.

“People think she’s going to sell the Antony,” Gabrielle said, her voice a mixture of dismay and admiration.

“In seven days,” Simon added.

“In Monaco,” Kat said, turning her gaze to Hale, both of them knowing exactly what they had to do.

“Marcus,” Hale said, pressing a button and calling to the cockpit. “We’re gonna need to turn the plane around.”

CHAPTER 19

The fact that no one had ever heard of Margaret Covington Godfrey Brooks before then was something that, in the days that followed, was never mentioned.

The matriarchs of Atlanta suddenly recalled lunching with her during the years when she and her late second husband had supposedly kept a home in Buckhead. The alumni board of Texas A&M University was not surprised to find a backlog of canceled checks and generous donations even though, until then, the name had not been familiar to a single soul beyond its appearance on an old student roster dating back to the 1950s. The residents of East Hampton seemed to recall a series of grand parties on Maggie’s third husband’s summer estate. And at least two former U.S. presidents were rumored to have been hunting buddies with Maggie herself on eighty thousand acres in the panhandle east of Lubbock (they also said that Maggie was the best shot any of their party had ever seen).

These weren’t lies, Kat knew. They were merely the fruits of the seeds that only a great con artist could have planted and an all-powerful con could have grown.

Within twenty-four hours after the news of the Antony’s recovery, Maggie’s name and photo had been beamed around the world, and so it stood to reason that the woman who had not, technically, existed a mere week before had become a personality of international proportions.

Celebrity, after all, is nothing but a matter of perception.

And perception, Kat knew, was the true heart of the con.

So no one thought to verify the name or the bank accounts or any of the facts that appeared along with the woman with the emerald.

Because when there’s a ninety-seven-karat emerald involved, the woman holding it is easily lost in the spotlight.

Even a woman like Maggie.

“There she is.”

Only hours before, Kat had started to fear that the woman on the other side of the street was a figment of her imagination—a nightmare, a ghost. Of course, technically, Margaret Brooks didn’t exist, but Kat had only to watch the woman, hear her big brass voice, and know that she was no phantom. Kat thought of what Constance…or Maggie…had dared to do, and a part of her couldn’t help but think that Maggie…was legend.

She certainly couldn’t ignore the irony that after chasing Maggie halfway around the world, fearing that she had disappeared like smoke, they had found her within twenty minutes of landing at the small private airstrip just outside of Nice.

Of course, it helped that the country of Monaco was no larger than a village, less than one square mile of rocky coastlines and pricey hotels. But the real reason they had found her so easily, Kat had to admit, was that Maggie was making absolutely no effort to hide.

Photographers snapped and passersby shouted, and Maggie waved to them all with gusto as she walked from elegant shop to elegant shop, dining at the best restaurants, taking tea with only the best people.

Kat hated her. And Kat envied her. But mostly, she tried to imagine what it would be like to be her—to be that good, that smart, that sure. Thief years were like dog years, her father had always said, so by that count, Kat felt much older than fifteen; but standing on the street that night, staring through the windows of the five-star hotel that Maggie was temporarily calling home, Kat couldn’t help feeling naive and inexperienced and…young. And she didn’t exactly like it.

When her phone began to ring and she looked down to see it was her father calling, she felt young for entirely different reasons.

“You’re going to have to talk to him eventually, you know.”

She turned to see Hale standing behind her, jacket thrown over his shoulder, looking like he’d just stepped out of a movie.

Kat took one last glance at the phone, then slipped it back into her pocket. “As soon as he hears my voice, he’ll know something’s wrong.”

“And that’s a bad thing because…”

“He can’t do this for me, Hale. This is my mess. I’ve got to clean it up.” The sun had set, and as they walked toward the beach, Kat could see the moon rising over the Mediterranean. It was quiet there. Still and peaceful, as good a place as any to say, “And that’s why I’ve been thinking…you should go.”

Kat stopped suddenly. She felt Hale almost slam into her, saw the way Gabrielle and Simon watched from five feet away. Everyone was looking. Everyone was waiting. She felt like the most conspicuous thief in the world when she told the boy beside her, “You were right, Hale. It was a bad job. It was a bad call. You were right to leave.”

“Kat…” Hale tried to reach for her, but even in the sand, Kat was quick and sure on her feet, and she moved nimbly away, leaving Hale with nothing but a fistful of salty air.

“Thanks for coming back and helping me find her and all, but…” She looked at Gabrielle, who stood leaning against Simon, still bruised and almost broken. “I think I’ve got to take it from here.”

Kat didn’t know where the stone was or how to steal it. She didn’t know if she could best Maggie or how. All she knew for certain was that no one else was getting hurt because of her. She was sure right up until the point when Hale said, “No.”

“What?” Kat said, spinning on him.

“I said no.”

“What do you think’s going to happen when you and Simon and Gabrielle don’t show up in Uruguay?”

“Paraguay,” the three of them corrected in unison.

“The whole family’s supposed to be there.” She turned to Simon. “Do you think your dad won’t notice when you don’t come back?” She looked at her cousin. “You think your mom and Uncle Eddie won’t send out a search party looking for you?”

The three of them stood silent, suddenly unable to answer, so Kat smiled at Hale and Gabrielle. “Both of you knew stealing the Cleopatra was a bad call, so it wasn’t your mistake.

Simon, you weren’t even in the country, which means this isn’t your problem. None of you. So you should all go. You can cover for me and—”

“No,” Hale said again, just as flat and twice as certain.

“You don’t get it, Hale. They’re not gonna leave the Antony Emerald just lying around—even if it isn’t the real one.”

“And we’re really only good at the ‘lying around’ jobs,” he countered.

“She’s already got the auction set. The clock is ticking.”

Hale inched closer. “Timing is everything.”