No such luck. Not only am I well and truly wedged, but I have to remain wedged until I get my cue to move.
The only thing keeping me company in the meantime is my fear of confined spaces. Well, my fear of confined spaces and a bladder so full, it’s drowning my other internal organs, one by one. I indulge in the luxury of a quick peek at the phone I was issued this morning, but it doesn’t help. Only ten minutes have passed since the last time I looked.
Ten long minutes. Ten painful minutes. Ten minutes drawn into a time warp and stretched into infinity.
Tight spaces have a way of magnifying everything that way: time, fears, sounds. It’s that last one that accounts for my being in here at all. If it were possible for me to climb through the ducts and get in place without sounding like a stampede of elephants, I might actually enjoy my job. As it is, I have to be in place long before business opens for the day.
Watching. Waiting. Wondering why I ever thought a career as the world’s most claustrophobic jewel thief was a reasonable life choice.
Since I already have my phone out, I decide to distract myself with my favorite pastime. My fingers fly over the touchscreen as I text my coconspirator. Tell me a joke.
It takes all of fifteen seconds for Riker to respond. Stop clogging the communication lines. What’s your status?
A quick glance through the slats of the vent currently serving as my veranda allows me to size up the situation below. Two clerks behind the counter. A security guard posted at the door, his vigilance waning as the afternoon wears on and his protruding stomach digests his lunch. Three shoppers overall—two men in nice suits, looking at matching gold watches, and one young woman with a knockoff scarf, gazing wistfully at engagement rings.
I want to tell her not to bother—to buy herself a nice cat and take up knitting instead—but not at the cost of giving my position away. Sometime in the next half hour, they’re going to open the safe in the basement and bring out a diamond necklace worth two million dollars. That young woman’s happiness is important, but not at the cost of a cool two million.
I’m not saying anything until you tell me a joke, I text back.
We count three shoppers inside. Can you confirm?
I shift a little too much inside my metal prison, and my elbow hits the side with a clang. For a second, I think I’m made, that I’m going to have to haul out of there like a rat driven by smoke, but the lilting background music that’s been playing on repeat all day covers the sound.
Relieved—and sweating out only mild profusions of anxiety—I text back, Even a knock-knock joke will do. I’m bored.
All I get this time is a series of random letters and numbers, which means Riker either smashed the phone against his forehead in irritation or gave up entirely and chucked it out the window. It’s easy for him to be full of righteous anger. He and our getaway driver, Oz, are comfortably set up in a utility truck down the street, with room to stretch their legs and pee into a coffee cup, should the need arise.
Relax, I text. It’s all going according to plan. What do you call a sleepwalking nun?
He won’t respond, of course. Riker doesn’t approve of humor on the job—or anytime, really. Cracking a smile might mean someone will mistake him for a human being, which is something he actively strives to avoid.
A roamin’ Catholic. I wait a second. Get it? She’s roamin’? Roman?
Still nothing. It’s too bad these temporary cell phones won’t let you download Candy Crush or something. I’m dying in here.
The sound of movement down below stops me before I make the mistake of sending Riker my favorite limericks line by line. The young woman has given up on her pursuit of the perfect emerald-cut diamond, and the two men have finally decided on a pair of Concords that look like gold bricks. Clerk A moves to help them while Clerk B picks up the phone and casts an anxious look toward the back of the shop. His adrenaline spikes so much, I can almost feel the shift in the air, all of it drawn up into my vent.
Not that I’m judging him, mind you. He has every right to be nervous. Today is the first time in a decade that necklace will see the light of day, and it’s an anniversary we intend to mark in a big way.
When seen at a distance, Paulson Jewelers isn’t all that impressive. It has a small, lackluster inventory compared to its more upscale competitors in Manhattan’s diamond district. The building is crowded between a Laundromat and a discount shoe store, which doesn’t do much to boost its overall aesthetic. In fact, if it weren’t for the small, overlooked detail that it’s built on top of a former bank vault, it wouldn’t have anything to offer.
But, oh, that bank vault is worth notice. Hidden below the city streets and wiped from official records during Prohibition so it could be used as a distillery, that vault has been the secret hiding place of the necklace since it went missing after a botched heist ten years ago.
It wasn’t my botched heist. I was only fifteen at the time. Still, I’ve got what you might call a personal tie to the original thief. I’ve spent many long nights thinking about that necklace, dreaming of it, picturing what my life might have been like if someone had left that signature twenty-carat stone deep in the cavern it came from. I like to think there’d be ponies and wide open fields. Maybe even an Italian villa or two.
Since turning back the hands of time is outside my skill set, I’m stuck with option B—all two million dollars of it. It’s the only reason I’ve allowed myself to be crammed into this tin can like a human nut loaf. I mentally go over the plan in an attempt to distract myself.
As soon as the necklace is removed from the safe and brought upstairs to be picked up by its owner—a woman by the name of Erica Dupont—Paulson Jewelers will be plunged into a blackout. No cameras, no emergency generators, no phones. The doors will automatically lock, and the metal screens will crash down over the windows. This kind of safety feature means no one can come in, but it means no one gets out, either. A closed crime scene, the police like to call it.
With my trusty night vision goggles in place—they’re on top of my head, waiting for me to drop them over my eyes—it’ll be easy for me to lift the vent away. The screws have been undone for hours, waiting in my pocket for a quick return. I’ll slip down, snag the jewels, and be back inside my air duct before the sleepy security guard manages to locate his flashlight.
The best part is I get to hightail it out of this vent without regard for the clatter of escape. Jordan, our detonation expert and my best friend, is standing across the street, getting ready to set off a chain of firecrackers in a garbage can. She considers firecrackers the lowest form of explosive, and she almost cried when we told her she couldn’t bring out her homemade C-4 or flash bombs, but we don’t need the big explosives for this job. All we require is some noise to scare the clerks and security guard into thinking there’s a gunfight going on outside. They’ll be so busy trying to figure out what’s happening in the street, they won’t notice a few extra thumps as I make my escape.
And then? Freedom. Air. Two million dollars shoved down the front of my bra. It’s practically foolproof.
My heart picks up as a sleek town car comes to a stop in front of the jewelry store. Because of how narrow the storefront is, the car blocks the entire view out the window, and I can’t tell if Jordan is in place or if Oz is performing his requisite drive-by before Riker cuts all the electricity on the block.
I can, however, see a regal-looking woman in her seventies emerging from the backseat. Erica Dupont looks exactly how a person who owns a two-million-dollar necklace and buries it in obscurity for ten years should look—rich. Overdone from the delicate pink of her pantsuit to the leather handbag clutched at her side, this woman’s wealth is such an ingrained part of her, she could probably have necklaces hidden all over the city and never notice their loss.
It’s hard to imagine that kind of existence—to have so much money, it simply stops mattering. Most of my life has revolved around the idea that there never has been and never will be enough. Oh, I started out just fine, mind you, clothed and shod and poised to follow in the footsteps of one of the most successful jewel thieves this world has ever seen, but you could say there’s something about this particular career choice that breeds instability. All it takes is one bad job to change everything.
A new text flashes across the screen, stopping me before I fall too deep into the pit of my past.
Erica is on the move, Riker’s message says. Unnecessarily, I might add. I’m not the brains of this operation, but I’m not an idiot either. And she appears to be accompanied.
That’s also well within my powers of deduction. I can’t make out the face of the large male figure opening the door and ushering her inside, but he must be some kind of bodyguard she’s decided to bring along for security purposes. Which isn’t surprising, really. We’d half expected her to show up with an armored truck and a fleet of hired guns in tow, but she’s been making this really easy on us.
In fact, everything about this job has been easy so far. Fortuitous, I like to think; karma coming around and playing fair for a change. From the moment Riker heard about the necklace finally resurfacing after all these years—and managed to land us a two-million-dollar contract from a highly motivated buyer—this whole process has been like a series of dominoes falling into place.
Can you handle him?
Big means slow, and the nice suit he’s wearing means he isn’t expecting any action. I can handle him.
No sweat, I text back. The necklace is on its way up.
Good. Blackout in T minus two minutes. Cutting cell contact now.
That’s all I need to start my internal countdown. Two minutes should give the couple enough time to approach the counter. The clerks will be obsequious and distracted as they prepare to hand over the necklace. The security guard at the door will be busy keeping the shoppers off to one side, his eyes on the door for signs of any suspicious characters.
That leaves only me, ready to swoop in like, well, a suspicious character.
“Would you look at that?” A low whistle fills the air as the couple comes to a halt below me. “I knew it was an impressive piece of craftsmanship, but the pictures hardly do it justice.”
I almost drop my phone in my attempt to tuck it away in my belt pack. No. It can’t be. I must be hearing things.
“If I turn it like this, I can actually see my reflection in the big center stone. Do you think everyone looks this good in twenty carats?”
I’m delirious. Dehydrated and cramped. Losing my goddamned mind.
“We might as well have you wear it out. One thing I’ve noticed in the course of my career is it’s much harder to steal something from around a neck than you think. Necks and socks. Those are the best hiding spots. No one ever wants to go for the toes. Too afraid of fungus.”
There’s no doubt in my mind now. Only one person in the world has those kinds of inane theories. I fumble for the phone. ABORT, I text, even though I know Riker is no longer plugged in. Still, I have to try. ABORT NOW.
An ominous blank screen is my only reply. There’s nothing left for me to do but snap my eyes closed and wince as my internal clock hits the two-minute mark. Shutting my eyes against the inevitable is an awful lot like pulling the blankets over my head and hoping the monsters under the bed can’t find me, but it’s all I can do, short of tumbling out of the vent and turning myself in.
The man releases a showy catcall, and I can only assume he’s managed to put the heap of stones around Erica’s neck for an admiring glimpse against her décolletage. But even obscenely wealthy breasts aren’t visible in the dark, which means…
Cautiously, optimistically, I open one eye. Riker must have gotten my message, thank God, and I can finally pay enough attention to make out the features of the muscle-bound bodyguard below.
Dirty blond hair, worn a little too long so it curls at the ends like a surfer after a day in the sun.
Rough features, with a broken crook to his nose and a heaviness to his brow that makes him look like he’s deep in concentration, even when he sleeps.
Large, deep-set eyes the inky-brown of coffee, with crinkling lines that extend outward whenever he laughs or smiles.
And the lips. I don’t need to see the lips to know what they look like. Feel like. Taste like. Grant’s lips have always been his best feature—the one soft spot in the thickheaded, hard-bodied exterior I know so well.
“What I wouldn’t give to let my wife catch a glimpse of that beauty.” Grant shakes his head at the stones around Erica’s neck. “She’d love it. She has a thing for diamonds like you wouldn’t believe—can’t seem to get enough of them.”
I have to close my throat around the rising sound of irritation. Of course I have a thing for diamonds. I especially covet the diamonds that caused my father to disappear from my miserable fifteen-year-old existence, leaving me for all intents and purposes alone in the world. One might even call it an obsession.
“Absolutely. I’m more of an invest-my-money-in-real-estate sort of guy, but I can see how a necklace like this might have its advantages. I’ve always loved the curve of a woman’s neck right there.”
I almost tumble out of my duct again, but this time, it’s because I’m straining to catch a glimpse of what part he’s talking about. Unfortunately, all I can see is his broad back and the warning lights of a panic attack in my peripheral vision.
“You know what?” Erica says. “If she likes diamonds so much, you should buy her a bauble while we’re here. We can delay a few minutes if you want to shop around.”
“Really? You don’t mind?”
“Why not?” She releases a tinkling laugh, the sound like champagne flutes clinking against gold coins. “I’m not in a hurry, and you said yourself there haven’t been any signs of trouble.”
“If you’re sure.” Grant leans casually over one of the jewelry cases. “I’d like to get her something special. Believe me when I tell you—she has it coming.”
Oh, I have something coming, all right, but I seriously doubt it’s that pair of earrings he’s lingering over. Not that it matters about five seconds later, when the whirring click of the air turns off behind me.
With that, the entire jewelry store plunges into a vacuum of electricity—just like we planned. So much for aborting the mission. Riker’s sense of timing has always been worthless.
On cue, explosions sound from the street outside, spurring me to action and filling my ears with the ringing clatter of crashing metal and shouting. I don’t bother to hide my groan as I drop the night vision goggles into place. As much as I’d love to see this job through, there’s no way I can safely nab that necklace. Not now. Not if my husband is standing between me and Erica Dupont’s neck.
The vent takes on an eerie green glow through my goggles, but I don’t wait around for my eyes to adjust. Quick—so quick I almost lodge my shoulders sideways—I manage to get myself turned around. On my stomach, I wriggle as fast as I can in the opposite direction.
Even though this duct is used for cooling purposes only, I swear I can feel the metal heating underneath me as I worm my way through. In my panic, I’m also convinced Grant is right behind me—rattling the vent panel, climbing in, grabbing me by the ankle and giving a firm tug…
The duct still echoes with the sound of my escape as I make it to the exterior panel. Even though I know—I know—it’s only my imagination holding fast to my foot, a creeping numbness invades the limb. Which is why, by the time I finally push aside the metal cover and pull myself into the blinding night-vision-enhanced sunlight, I end up sprawled face-first on the rooftop tar, my foot twisted unnaturally underneath me and a sharp stab shooting through my ankle.
“Ow. Ouch. Ow.” I tuck into a neat ball and roll up on one leg, forcing myself to keep hopping, keep going, keep moving. Failed jewel thieves don’t have the luxury of wallowing in their pain.
Especially not failed jewel thieves whose husbands might come flying up the fire escape at any moment.
Even though our plans originally called for me to jump down to the back alley, where a dumpster full of padded garbage bags awaits, I decide it’s too risky to be anywhere near street level. Gauging the distance between me and the discount shoe store rooftop with a cringe, I put as much weight on my ankle as I can. It’s not much, but it’s enough to give me the running start I need.
With a quick prayer to the gods who watch over the desperate and determined, I leap.
So much for my foolproof plan.
I’m limping, exhausted, and starving by the time I arrive at Bryant Park.
“Food.” I drop to the round, café-style table with a sigh, ignoring the sounds of Ping-Pong taking place across the lawn. My ankle is throbbing inside the black jazz shoes I always wear when I’m working, but I don’t dare take them off. Based on the swelling currently ballooning inside my skin, I can’t risk releasing the pressure, or I’ll never get them back on again. “And water. And food.”
“Give me the necklace first,” Riker says. He’s looking rested and well-fed, two characteristics that don’t endear him to me at the moment.
“Don’t mess with me right now. I’m so hungry, I could eat this table, bird droppings and all.”
He drapes his arm more firmly over the picnic basket he brought along, tempting me with its signature red checks. Not that there’s anything delicious in there. If this were a real picnic, there’d be roast beef sandwiches, plates of cheese, and cake in a rainbow of colors. Sadly, this is no friendly meal for two. It’s a rendezvous between one tattered, exhausted jewel thief and the handsome bastard of a man who tells her what to do.
“Seriously, Riker.” My stomach growls a warning that practically echoes through the park. “I haven’t eaten in, like, ten hours. Please tell me you brought cookies.”
He slides the basket across the table and lifts the lid. “You know the deal. Drop off first.”
It’s with an unhappy sigh that I begin tossing in the paraphernalia from the running belt strapped to my waist. The night vision goggles, cracked and useless and with several clumps of my reddish-blond hair caught in the band. The cell phone, which Riker will dispose of by mysterious means. The now-empty energy gel pack that was supposed to sustain me during my long, cramped stay in air-duct-ville. And finally, the screws to the vent, which I was unfortunately unable to replace in my mad dash to get outside in one piece.
I shake my head.
“You don’t have it?”
I shake it again, more forcefully this time. This whole thing is his fault in the first place—even the twisted ankle, though making a rational argument for that one will be hard. “I take it you didn’t get my text message?”
“Which one? You spent half the day sending me terrible jokes.” He pauses, only the right side of his mouth scowling. It’s a common trick of his—he’s always had these freakishly weird lips that twist in opposite directions depending on his mood. The left side smiles. The right side scowls. You’d think such a quirk would make him appear disfigured, but it suits his dark, angular features to perfection—brings a touch of human to his otherwise flawless exterior. Seriously. I know supermodels who weep over the shape of his cheekbones.
“Pen, you’re starting to freak me out. I’m sorry it took so long for the lights to go down—I missed one of the wires—but that shouldn’t have been a deal breaker. Just a delay. What happened?”
“I didn’t get the necklace, that’s what happened,” I say. “I’d go into more detail, but my blood sugar is too low. I feel a faint coming on.”
“Please. You’ve never fainted a day in your life. You have an iron head and a titanium stomach.”
“Exactly my point.”
Finally—finally—he takes pity and hands me a banana from among the discarded tech in the picnic basket. A banana, of all things. Riker is paranoid I’m going to get fat and ruin all his plans to squeeze me inside air ducts and garbage cans, so he polices my diet accordingly. Still, I peel it greedily, not pausing to chew before I swallow.
“There, you’re fed. If you don’t have the necklace, where is it?”
I hand him the peel. “I assume it’s back in the vault. As soon as the lights went out, I got out of there as fast as I could.”
“But everything was going according to plan!”
“Um, not everything. Did you happen to see who was helping that woman out of the car?”
“A guard. Hired help. You said he wasn’t a problem.”
“He wasn’t a problem. At least, not until I recognized him.”
Riker’s eyes flare in a moment of alarm, and that’s when I know he understands. “No.”
“Afraid so. I should have known the moment he walked in. Shoulders like that could only belong to Grant.”
As if conjured by my husband’s name, Jordan appears out of nowhere, sliding into the seat opposite me and smelling like her usual mix of sulfur and candy. She’s still wearing the jean shorts layered over ripped leggings she donned for the job—an unquestionably punk outfit to go with the juvenile antics of setting off fireworks in a garbage can. In her everyday life, Jordan is much more likely to wear sweater sets and neatly ironed linen dresses, but she’s found that an impeccably attired, twentysomething black woman setting off explosives in broad daylight draws much more attention than a slouchy, underdressed teenager doing the same. How’s that for societal expectations?
“Grant-Grant?” she asks, not missing a beat.
“Grant-Grant-Grant,” I confirm. I peek inside the picnic basket, but unless I want to start munching electronics, I’m going to have to wait until I get home. “I guess the FBI must have received a tipoff the necklace was being moved and decided to get there first.”
“What do you mean, you guess the FBI must have received a tipoff?” Riker asks.
“I mean, based on the day’s events, which conspired to place my very own husband at the scene of our crime, I can only assume he was on the job. We always said it seemed too good to be true, the way the necklace was being transported with almost no security. Now we know it was. He’s probably been in on it from the start.”
“But how could you not have seen this coming?” Riker demands. “He never mentioned stopping by a jewelry store this afternoon?”
I don’t like his tone. “Of course not.”
“And you didn’t accidentally indulge in a little pillow talk one night?”
Now I don’t like his words, either. “What exactly are you accusing me of here, Riker? I just spent all day trapped inside an air vent. Months planning this with you guys. Do you honestly think I’d have gone through with everything if I had any idea Grant would be there?”
“It’s one monster of a coincidence. Are you sure he isn’t having you followed?”
“Of course I’m sure!” I’m on my feet now, glaring at him across the table. “You’re the one in charge of details. If we’re going to make accusations, why don’t we point fingers at your mysterious underworld buyer and his two-million-dollar promises? I thought you said you vetted this guy before you agreed to the job.”
“His name is Blackrock, and I did vet him. The man is infallible, a god among thieves.”
One thing I know for sure: gods and thieves rarely play well together. “You must have overlooked something.”
“I didn’t overlook anything.”
“Well, you underlooked, then. Grant was there, Riker. So close I could have touched him.”
“You’re yelling, Pen.” Jordan speaks calmly, ending our argument before it has a chance to get started. For a woman who loves a good explosion, she’s always been a remarkable diplomat.
She’s also right. I am yelling, and I have to force myself to take a deep breath and relax, focusing on the careful rise and fall of my chest. It’s the technique I resort to whenever the walls start closing in on me—metaphorically speaking—and it comes in handy at times like this. Whatever else I might be able to say about him, Riker is good for my oxygen saturation levels.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get the necklace,” I say and mean it. This makes two times someone in my family has failed to get their hands on those diamonds, but at least I haven’t disappeared into thin air as a result. Yet. “And I’m sorry for yelling. I didn’t want to lash out at you, but I’m hungry and cranky, and I hurt my ankle climbing out of the vent.”
Riker’s scowl lifts. “Apology accepted.”
True to form, he doesn’t offer one in return. Before I can drop a hint that one would be welcomed—deserved, even—Jordan takes over, her natural tact smoothing over the rough spots. “There. Now that you have it out of your system, you two can be friends again.”
Friends. As if that word contains the depth needed to describe the complex, tangled, soul-deep relationship I share with this man. It would be like calling Federal Agent Grant Emerson my husband. Sometimes, mere semantics aren’t enough.
Jordan further proves the inefficacy of the human language with a quick hand gesture that neither Riker nor I can decipher. I recognize it only as a signal to Oz, which she makes using a weird sign language the two of them created when they were foster kids together. Those two are so emotionally connected, they can practically write Shakespeare in a few twitches of the wrist. It’s freaky.
It’s also a sign of how good a master of disguise Oz is, because I didn’t even see him standing over there by the entrance to the library. Medium height, medium build, average features, eyes that aren’t really any one color—when Oz isn’t in some kind of prearranged uniform, even I have a hard time spotting him in a crowd, and I’ve known the man for just about forever.
“Oz thinks we should take a few days.” Her eyes squint as she tries to read his hand movements from afar. “That way, we can decompress and cool off. It’s not a bad idea. We’ll regroup later this weekend and do the postmortem then. I think we’re all feeling disappointed, and it’s not going to do us any good to take it out on each other.”
Before I have a chance to agree—it is a good idea to take a few days away from the people I love most and least in the world—Riker shakes his head. “Nope. It won’t work. We can’t meet this weekend.”
Oh, for the love of everything. Would it kill him to be conciliatory for once? It’s not like any of us wanted things to turn out this way. Besides, he knows how much that necklace means to me. Few people get a chance to cash in on the unlucky talisman that ruined their lives. I know my cut of the money won’t make up for the loss of my dad—and it won’t even begin to cover the huge fortune that disappeared with him—but it’s a decent start.
“Come on, Riker,” I say. “Your hot dates and big plans are going to have to wait. Figuring out what went wrong is more important than your personal life.”
“Too bad it’s not my personal life that’s the issue here.” He pushes back from the table. His movements are jerky, a clear sign he’s trying—not very successfully—to hide his emotions.
That’s when it hits me.
“In case you’ve forgotten,” he says, “tomorrow is your anniversary.”