Uncommon Criminals (Page 24)

The ornate railing was smooth beneath her palms as she stood staring down at Maggie, who laughed and talked and cajoled like the queen of the ball.

Maggie, who had sat trembling in that rainy diner, holding a black-and-white photo of someone else’s childhood and begging someone else’s child to take a terrible chance.

Maggie, who had used the name Romani.

Maggie, who had stood in a room much like that with Kat’s uncles in 1967, and had been chasing that emerald ever since.

My uncles, Kat thought to herself, then smiled sadly. Her uncles would know what to do.

Then, with the thought, her smile changed.

“What are you looking at?” Hale asked. “Why are you smiling? I worry when you smile.”

“I know why she did it, Hale. I know why she conned me.”

“Well…yeah,” Hale said. “I can think of a hundred million reasons.”

“No, Hale.” Kat pressed her hands against his chest, felt his heart pounding beneath her palms as she said, “I know why she conned me. You can’t pull this job without the real thing—forty years ago maybe, if the fake was really good and the black market really shady. But you can’t even do a black market deal with today’s technology. And if you don’t have the real Antony…and if you can’t fake the Antony…”

“You can’t sell the Antony,” Hale finished for her.

Kat nodded and shrugged. “So the only way to pretend you have the Antony is if you really do have the Cleopatra. And the only way to pass off the Cleopatra as the Antony is if you know where there’s a fake Cleopatra to swap it for. But how many forgers in the world can do that?”

“Just Charlie?” Hale guessed.

Kat nodded and sighed. “Just Charlie.”

She turned slowly around, her gaze sweeping over the room—tuxedos and ball gowns and the place where the emerald would soon be holding court at the center of the party. It was almost as if the world turned to black-and-white and it was 1967 all over again. Kat didn’t dare think what it would feel like to chase that stone for fifty more years.

“Here,” Kat said beneath the din of the crowd. “We do it here.”

“Um, Kat, not to be a spoilsport, but you did see the guards, didn’t you?” Hale asked.

“Yes,” she said, and for some reason, she couldn’t hold back a laugh.

“And that number is going to go up by…say…twenty percent once they get the stone in here?”

“More like thirty,” she corrected. “If we’re lucky. But it has to be here, Hale.” She thought of her uncles: handsome, young, identical. A genetic sleight of hand. “We can do it here if we can get help—if we can get someone inside.”

“Okay. I can—”

“Not you.”

Hale hung his head, but eventually admitted, “Fine, then Nick…”

But he trailed off when Kat turned to him and smiled as if she’d temporarily forgotten what it felt like to be the mark.

“We’re not the only ones who are going to have to trust him,” she said with a shake of her head. “Which means we’re going to need the inside man.”

Hale took a tentative step back and studied her. “So…”

“So how do you feel about helicopters?”

CHAPTER 29

“Hello, Uncle Charlie.”

Kat and Hale stood with their hands in their pockets, shivering inside too-thin coats while the snow swirled around them. A storm was coming. The wind was colder than she’d remembered. Or maybe, Kat thought, it was just the look in her great-uncle’s eyes as he said, “You have a lot of nerve, bringing your trouble to my mountain.”

He pushed away from the door and moved through the dim house, sidestepping urns and canvases and furniture, calling behind him, “Go to your uncle, Katarina.”

“I am with my uncle.”

“Edward would—”

“Eddie’s on the other side of the world, Uncle Charlie. Eddie doesn’t care—”

Charlie stopped and spun. “He’d care about this.”

“Why?” she asked, easing closer to the place where he stood, a poker in his hand, staring down at the fire. “Why does the Cleopatra Emerald matter so much, Uncle Charlie? What happened in 1967?”

“We do not talk about that, Katarina.”

“Fine. Then let’s talk about her.”

Kat had torn a picture from a newspaper, and she pulled it from her pocket, the headline screaming out in French.

“She’s calling herself Maggie now. A few weeks ago she said her name was Constance Miller and that Visily Romani wanted me to steal the Cleopatra Emerald. She’s a con artist, Uncle Charlie. A great one.” She studied her uncle’s face, watched his breath stay even and slow, with not a single telltale sign of recognition. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Charlie shook his head and gestured toward the tiny cluttered room. “I’m afraid my circle of friends is not as big as it used to be. I’m sorry I can’t help.” The words sounded right, but it was like watching an athlete who’s been away from the game. He was rusty and slow, but the talent was still there, oozing underneath.

“Nice try, Charlie.” Kat smiled. “The timing was right, but your eyes”—she pointed to her own dark lashes—“they’re a little out of practice.”

“Kat—”

“She conned me, Uncle Charlie. She is so good, and I was…cocky.” Kat laughed even though she knew it wasn’t funny—not funny at all. “She told me exactly what I wanted to hear.” She risked a glance at Hale, waited for him to nod before she went on. “So we did what no crew has ever done before. We stole the Cleopatra Emerald.”

In the stillness of the room, only the cracking and popping of the fire made a sound. She wasn’t expecting Charlie to tell her it was okay. She had no hopes of comfort. Only truth.

“I got conned,” Kat admitted. “And for a long time I couldn’t see why. Why take the risk of angering Uncle Eddie and my dad and a whole bunch of people who are really good at revenge? Why use me when there are a half dozen crews who are just as good?”

“I don’t know her,” he said again.

“Yes you do, Charlie,” Kat told him. “Because the only way to pass the Cleopatra off as the Antony is if no one knows the Cleopatra is gone. The only way to run the con she’s running is if you have a fake Cleopatra. And the only person who can fake the Cleopatra is you.”

“I don’t know her, Katarina.”

“Yes.” Kat reached into her pocket and found the second photo—the one with ball gowns and tuxedos, really big hairdos, and an emerald at the center of the fair. “You do.”

Charlie’s hands didn’t shake when he reached for it. He stood by the mantel for a long time, staring down. “She got old,” he said softly, then in a flash, the picture was in the fire, dissolving in the flames. “But I guess she’s not the only one.”

Not for the first time, Kat wondered what had happened to Charlie, what made him stay at the top of that mountain, trapped inside the snow and the wind, hidden from his family and his world. Kat let herself wonder if Uncle Eddie was right—if she was still running—and maybe bound for a mountain of her own someday.

“What happened in ’67, Uncle Charlie?”

“Jobs go bad, Kat. You know that.” He tried to move away, but Kat grabbed his hand, held on for dear life.

“Bad enough to scare Uncle Eddie? To drive the two of you apart?” She gripped his fingers, stared into his eyes. “What happened in ’67?”

Charlie tried to pull away. “Ask your uncle.”

“I am,” she countered. “Whoever Maggie is, she used the name Romani. She used me. And you. She used us,” Kat said, pleading, but Charlie only laughed.

His eyes were dark, joyless, when he whispered, “It’s not the first time.”

Kat watched her uncle ease into the chair by the fire and take a deep breath. He seemed years older when he said, “In 1959, two brothers left Romania and struck out on their own. They made their way across Eastern Europe and the Baltics—London for a time. And along the way, they met a girl.…”

Kat took her place on a footstool, felt the heat of the fire burning through the back of her legs, thawing her from the inside out. It was almost like being in Uncle Eddie’s kitchen as she sat there, listening, learning, trying to understand more about their world.

“She changed us, Katarina. You wouldn’t have recognized Eddie—or me,” Charlie added with a laugh. “We were…drunk…on her. She was just the kind of woman it was hard not to love. Smart. Fearless. I never told anybody how I felt, but Eddie swore he was going to marry her. He even bought the ring. All he was waiting for was one big score to prove himself to her. The big score.”

“Like the Cleopatra Emerald,” Hale said.

Charlie nodded. “Exactly. The whole world was infatuated with that stone. Everyone said it was cursed, sure—but truth be told, that just made us want it more. All the best crews had tried for it—and failed. But the three of us…we didn’t listen.

We just watched and planned. And waited.”

“Until the World’s Fair?” Hale guessed. Charlie nodded.

“It had never been shown in public before, so I went to work on the fake. Eddie played inside. And she…” He trailed off. “Well, she played everyone.”

“What happened?” Kat said.

“Eddie planned it so that I could make the switch and get the real stone out, but she said I should give it to her instead—that she’d take the stone to Eddie and tell him…tell him that she and I were in love. She said we’d let him keep the Cleopatra to soften the blow. And then she and I would be free to be together.” Charlie looked down at the fire. “You were right, Katarina. She is good.”

“So you changed the plan,” Kat said, finally starting to understand. “Is that where the job went bad?”

“Honestly?” Charlie raised an eyebrow. “No. She’d thought of everything. It would have worked, but a guard messed up…a fluke thing. He left a window open and a bird flew in, set off all the sensors—brought an army down on us. Eddie and I barely made it out alive. That’s when we learned she’d planned on taking the stone and running away from us both. Brothers. She was willing to come between brothers.” Charlie sighed. “And we let her. So don’t feel bad, Katarina. As far as marks go, you are in excellent company.”

Hale was moving forward, leaning close. “In three days she’s going to sell the Cleopatra—pass it off as the Antony.”

“Of course she is.” Charlie reached out to stoke the fire, sparks and embers flaring. “That was the original plan.”

“But we can get it back,” Kat heard herself confiding.

“It won’t work.” Charlie shook his head in the manner of someone who has lived and learned and is content never to make the same mistakes again.