"You're looking particularly elegant this evening, Kick," Thomas said as we turned onto the road from Éygalières to St. Rémy on our way to a dinner party at the Balfours' farm in Les Baux. "Very calm. Serene, in fact."
"What a lovely compliment." I smiled over at my husband. "You know, in the last few months, since we got home from that extraordinary trip to Switzerland and I retired for good, I have been feeling secure. It's silly, I know, because the statute on my crimes doesn't expire for who knows how many years and, to my knowledge, Interpol hasn't suspended the international dragnet for me."
"No. But at least I can keep you out of their sights."
"And there isn't a bounty?"
Thomas laughed. "No. No bounty. And listen, if worse came to worst, and you were somehow identified and apprehended, you've done such outstanding service to the crown over the past couple of years, I'm sure Her Majesty's courts would look upon you with compassion."
"Oh, wonderful--you mean only ten years' hard labor instead of life?"
"Something like that," Thomas teased. "But I'll come visit you every day." He turned serious. "Kick, believe me, you're in no danger. I'd tell you if you were. I love seeing a contented smile on your face--you've earned a little peace in your life, a little serenity. Enjoy it."
Maybe Thomas was right. Maybe it was time for me to let up a bit, move down from my normal state of high-alert. But I've never been relaxed or complacent--after all, you don't get to be the most elusive and successful jewel thief in history by being, to use the vernacular, laid-back. My journey from an impoverished girl born to a destitute mother on the fringes of the Oklahoma oil fields to the sunlit existence of a millionairess well-settled in the legendary lavender fields of Provence had been arduous, dangerous, and meticulously planned.
And when I decided it was time to leave the game, I simply disappeared, and immersed myself in the luxury gleaned from decades of solitary, anonymous work. I vanished into the gauzy fairy-
tale world of the super rich who spend their days bathed in golden light and Premier Cru Burgundy. And, as if that weren't enough, a short time after returning to my Provencale farmhouse hideout, La Petite Pomme, I crowned my notorious career by becoming the wife of Sir Thomas Curtis, Scotland Yard's revered Inspector Emeritus. So now, when I was called to duty--occasional assignments that I accepted reluctantly--I worked for the good guys, on the side of the law.
Some may say I'm lucky--they'd be wrong. I don't believe in luck and I didn't get where I am by wishing it so. I've always believed in cautious, considered, controlled advancement, leaving as little as possible to life's inevitable vagaries. But it was true, I had earned time off for good behavior. Maybe I would lighten up a bit.
I leaned back and watched the beautiful countryside fly by, a slight smile played about my lips. "If you want to know, Thomas, sometimes I do feel as though I've quite swallowed the proverbial canary." I laughed.
What a silly, stupid thing to say.
.Thomas squealed, practically on two wheels, around the corner onto the D-27, the steep curvy road to Les Baux. He couldn't resist revving the big engine of his brand-new Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet and downshifting as loudly as possible as we approached each S-curve and then flooring it so the g's forced us back into the molded seats. (Occasionally, he'd miss the correct gear and shift into one too high or too low, which invariably brought on a whispered epithet. I bit the inside of my lip and didn't say a word.)
Oh, dear, I thought. Here comes trouble. A large convertible appeared ahead. A stately conveyance with the temerity to be going only double the speed limit, instead of three times. Thomas charged up on their tail and gunned the engine impatiently while I silently hoped the offenders weren't going to the Balfours'. But of course they would be. What else would a lovely, shiny, brand-new, meteor blue Bentley Azure--I mean really, there were only a few of them in the world, they were as rare as hen's teeth--be doing on this road at this hour?
Thomas stuck the nose of his car practically beneath the Bentley's rear end and revved again. It was unseemly.
"What shall we do, darling?" I said. "Just go ahead and ram him?"
"Don't be a backseat driver," he snapped.
I looked out the window, trying to keep from laughing.
Thomas was full of contradictions, and that's why I loved him. For instance, he claimed to be retired. It was a ruse. Retired people don't wear pagers or carry BlackBerries, particularly in Provence. In reality, he'd become head of Europe's elite international anticrime task force and had frequent hush-hush conversations and unexpected, unexplained absences. He was a genius, an intellectual snob--brilliant, professorial brain, occasionally absentminded. But, for all his cerebral superiority, he should never be behind the wheel of a high-performance, ridiculously expensive machine like this--the color was sizzling: Rouge Indiene--because he was an exceptionally poor driver. He simply didn't pay attention to what he was doing. It takes a certain type of brain--thoughtful and analytical--to be a chief inspector, not the gee-whiz, showboat, zip-zoom, tight leather pants mentality one typically associates with the owner of a machine like a Porsche Turbo.
"Thomas!" I screamed. I couldn't help it.
The two vehicles arrived at the Balfours' drive at the same moment, but theirs stopped just inside the front gate. And when Thomas finally woke up, he had to slam on the brakes and swerve sharply to avoid smashing into them. Gravel sprayed through the air, peppering the side of the expensive convertible like machine gun bullets and making the passengers duck to avoid being pelted by the stones. I even heard one of the ladies cry out. The driver frowned over at Thomas. "Easy. Easy," he patted the air with his hands. His accent was American.
"Sorry, old chap," Thomas called over jovially through my window. "Expected you to go on up to the front." We continued around to the foot of the walk. "Stupid bastard," he muttered once we were well past them.
"Nicely done." I patted his thigh when we rolled to a stop. I untied my scarf and shook the dust away.
"Thanks," Thomas said and patted the dashboard. "This is a great car."
"Hmm," I agreed. In my side mirror I watched the Bentley's owner bend down and run his hand over the mirror-like finish of his $200,000 vehicle, which was no doubt lacquered with one hundred hand-rubbed coats of something very rare. I think I even saw his chin quiver a bit.
"Kick!" Flaminia, my Persian-Parisian friend with the world's most exotic appearance and the accent to go with it, ran to greet us. Her coal black hair was pulled into a chignon to which she'd added an enormous shocking pink rose from her garden. She had on slim pumpkin-colored silk slacks, a billowy black silk top, and a torsade of amethysts. "What a gorgeous suit," she said to me. "And I'm so glad you've worn that brooch. One day, if you wake up and find it missing--you'll know where to look."
I glanced down at my lapel--the brooch really was exceptional, part of my jewelry collection that was centered around grapes and wine, all basically the same design but with varying stones and precious metals. This particular piece had nine rare golden South Sea pearls--ranging in size from twelve millimeters to eighteen--gathered into a stunning cluster of glistening grapes with garnet pavé leaves. They gleamed from the bronze silk of my jacket--looking luscious and almost edible. The earrings matched, single glowing grapes with garnet leaves and a gold twist of vine.
"Thank you, Flaminia," I said. "I never get tired of looking at it either. Tell me, who all is here this evening?" I slid a slight glance to the glamorous quartet that had emerged from the convertible.
"Oh, you know. Old friends, new friends--summer's last good-bye. Excuse me, will you?" She moved toward the new arrivals and extended her hand while Thomas and I stepped through the gate into her garden where, as Flaminia had said, old and new friends were already well into the swing of the evening.
The sound of the piano could be heard in the background, and white-jacketed waiters moved gracefully among the guests with cocktails in crystal tumblers and flutes of champagne. For some guests, this had been their first residential summer in Provence--such as the now somewhat defensive Americans from the Bentley--and for others, it was where they spent June through the end of September and then returned to their busy lives in Paris or Brussels or New York. Flaminia was considered to be the most gracious hostess in all of St. Rémy, her invitations were certainly the most sought after, and tonight as we gathered around her hilltop pool--a classic art nouveau aquamarine rectangle--the light of the setting sun bathed our faces in its clean, pure light.
Thomas and I were chatting with a small group along the stone wall where the terrain fell away spectacularly, vanishing from sight until it reappeared on the valley floor hundreds of feet below. When I say "Thomas and I were chatting" with them, that's not entirely correct. Thomas was. He was, after all, Scotland Yard's celebrity Inspector Emeritus. I, on the other hand, was looking around for the waiter with the bottle of champagne to come our way for refills, nibbling on a Beluga canapé, and eavesdropping on the "Bentley American" men on the opposite side of the pool. The water magnified the sound of their voices as it ricocheted across.
"I understand from Keesling Fowler that Ballantine's is going to settle rather than have this situation go public," said the man who'd been driving the car. He had on a dark green sport coat and tan linen slacks. "Apparently, Sir Bertram acknowledged that the jewels are fakes--and not even very good ones, at that. Someone changed the stones between when the Fowlers bought the necklace at the auction and received it in registered post."
Sir Bertram. Fake jewels. My skin was instantly cold. Chills ran up my spine and I think I stopped breathing.
The other man, who was bald and wore glasses with heavy black rims, didn't respond.
"You know as well as I do this is the sort of bad publicity that could put an auction house out of business," he continued. "Switching goods on the buyers. Didn't you just join the Ballantine Board, Logan? What the hell's going on?"
"The firm is definitely facing a number of challenges at the moment," Logan shrugged and answered casually. "A lot of it is just business as usual in an auction house. Nothing that can't be handled."
The man in the green jacket studied him for a moment before speaking. "You can't B.S. me, Logan. We've been good friends for too many years. Our kids grew up together. We've vacationed together. We've bailed each other out a few times. I want to know what's happening--you know you can trust me, it will not leave this place. I've got my eye on a couple of pieces at the fall sales but I'm not sure I want to bid on them if there's a chance they or their provenances are false."
Logan nodded again, and absentmindedly rotated his cocktail glass between his hands before answering. "If you want to know the truth, just between us? It's a hell of a mess. Fake jewelry is just one of the issues. The house has had a few irregularities in the paintings department, as well. At the third-quarter Board meeting last week we gave Sir Bertram till the end of the year to get the place cleaned up. He's let Andrew Gardner go--the director of the jewelry department who's always been considered a genius--he's the one who put Ballantine's on the map in the jewelry world."
Fake jewelry? Fake paintings? Andrew Gardner fired? For those in the know in the world of Magnificent Jewelry auctions, Andrew Gardner was considered the ultimate authority worldwide, and to lose him just a matter of weeks before the major autumn auction season opened was suicide.
I'm not the fainting type, but suddenly I was dizzy. I saw lightning and heard thunder--although there wasn't a cloud in the sky--and then the world started to spin. The next thing I knew, I was under water. Bill Balfour had a hold of one of my hands, my champagne glass was still firmly clenched in the other. The serene, secure expression had been washed off my face.
Copyright © 2007 by Marne Davis Kellogg. All rights reserved.