(Story sold to Women’s World for their mini-mystery page; six million readers; $500 check, but more importantly, a by-line)
Deke turned the headlights off and sat for a moment, letting the plan roll through his mind one last time. He’d made the phone call to assure himself that the lines worked properly. He’d checked and double-checked all the possible variables.
Satisfied that he had thought of everything necessary, that it was all under control, he glanced at the watch’s luminous dial: 10 minutes to 11. It was time to get started.
He pulled the ski mask down over his face so only his eyes and mouth were visible. Retrieving the rope from the passenger seat, he eased his lanky frame from the subcompact.
Dressed entirely in black so as to blend with the moonless night, Deke scrambled through the woods until he stood next to the high brick wall surrounding Baxter’s estate. Reaching up, he threw the rope beyond the wall. The three-pronged grappling withstood a solid yank. Then he easily scaled up and over the wall. As he landed with a soft thud on the plush lawn, the familiar excitement swelled inside him.
He had told Baxter that all this cloak-and-dagger business wasn’t necessary since he was stealing the chalice only temporarily–until the insurance company paid off, but Baxter wouldn’t listen to him. The collector wanted the theft to be authentic, as authentic as the chalice itself, which dated back to Nero, almost 2.000 years, and Deke was at last forced to concede the point.
Lurking in the darkness, Deke was pleased that Baxter had a flair for the dramatic. Although it was more dangerous to act the familiar role of a thief, he smiled as a burst of adrenaline swept through him.
He dodged from tree to tree, pausing unnecessarily to survey what he could see of the large estate through the dark. A dull light glimmered at the Victorian mansion’s far end. This was where Baxter would wait as arranged until the theft was complete, before calling the police.
Deke glanced in both directions, then slipped around the manicured hedge outside the library window. Only the sound of the gently swaying trees reached his ears as he pulled at the window. It didn’t open. He tried again.
“Damn him,” Deke swore softly under his breath. “He could have left something easy.”
Deke pulled a leather case from his hip pocket and drew out a small awl. He struggled with the window for a moment until he finally forced it loosed and could inch it open. He shoved the window up just enough that he could get through, then hoisted himself feet first into the room while ducking his head under the sill. He regained his balance and stood upright, taking a deep breath.
The library was pitch black, but it didn’t matter; he’d been in the room once and had spent hours studying the mental sketches from that one visit.
Deke stood for a moment as the library’s cold penetrated his thin clothes. He shrugged off the shiver that raced up his spine and maneuvered around the unseen couch toward the glass case he knew was on the opposite wall. Baxter had told him the chalice didn’t move from the case, but Deke never made it that far.
Something hard and heavy crashed against the back of his skull. Stars and flashes of light erupted from somewhere behind his eyes as he slumped heavily to the floor.
When he came to, his vision was blurred. A light glared from his right, and he put his hand up to his forehead to shield his eyes. He shook his head in an effort to rid himself of the dizziness, but a sharp fain flashed across his temples.
“I hope Marco didn’t hit you too hard.” Baxter’s voice oozed with mocking sympathy.
Deke ripped off the ski mask, gulped fresh air and forced a look over his shoulder. Deke’s mouth felt gritty, but he managed to ask, “Who’s Marco?”
“A friend of mine and, I might add, your accomplice,” Baxter replied smugly.
Deke struggled to a sitting position. He played dumb, which wasn’t difficult since the pain behind his eyes still thundered.
“What do you mean, my accomplice?” he asked.
Baxter let out a confident, irritating laugh. “I must have forgotten to tell you that you had one.”
Baxter leaned against the front of a massive desk, his hands propped to either side. He had white hair and looked regal in his elegant floor-length robe, but alert, velvety-green eyes hinted at scruples that were less than admirable.
“Why an accomplice?” Deke asked. “You hired me to steal the cup so you can collect the insurance money.”
“Do you really think I’d trust you with a priceless Roman artifact?” the man replied.
The question had crossed Deke’s mind. “Then why hire me and then also hire this Marco to put me out of the picture?”
“My dear man, you don’t understand at all. You’re by no means out of the picture.” The grin and unblinking eyes taunted Deke. “You see, there’s a good chance the insurance company wouldn’t believe me since I’ve only had the policy for a short time. They’d send around inspectors will all that bothersome prying. This way I have you as proof of the theft and my vigorous attempt to save the chalice. Unfortunately, your accomplice got away before I could recover the prize. A pity.”
“Yes, a pity.” Deke stood slowly, thinking furiously at the same time. Thirty years the collector’s junior, he thought he could perhaps escape now that his wits had returned.
As if Baxter had read his mind, a small-caliber pistol appeared. It wasn’t a particularly large weapon, but it was more than enough to send Deke to a premature grave.
Deke rubbed his temples, feigning an unclear mind. “So you’re going to hold me here until the police arrive, then turn me over as proof that the chalice was lifted?”
“Nice plan,” Deke mumbled. “How long have I been out, anyway?”
“Not long. Maybe ten minutes,” the collector replied.
Deke glanced at his watch: seven minutes past 11. “There is one thing you’ve forgotten,” he began slowly. He paused to rub his head again, then continued, “what if I go ahead and tell the police about your little scheme? Then what happens to your story?”
Baxter’s face remained unchanged, amused. “Who would take the word of a known thief against that of a world-famous collector? On the other hand,” he added, his hand tightening on the pistol, “maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to talk.”
Deke wondered if he’d underestimated Baxter and held his breath.
The front door chime suddenly converted the collector’s smile into tight-lipped determination. “That must be the police,” he said and waved the pistol menacingly at Deke. “I’ll follow you to the door, if you please.”
Deke’s heart pounded fiercely as he and his captor paced the 30 steps out of the library and through the elegant marble entryway. Apprehension snuck up on Deke when they reached the mansion’s front door, but he pushed it aside and grabbed the brass knob. With a deep sigh, he swung open the heavy door.
A dark-skinned, greasy-haired man, whom Deke assumed had to be Marco, lurched into the entry. Another man, whose face was lost in shadow, stood behind him.
Marco stared at Baxter with obvious contempt. “You set me up, you son of a–”
“Silence!” Baxter bellowed. “Just what is the meaning of this?”
“You called the police,” Marco growled, “and I’ll tell them–”
The shadowed man pushed Marco farther into the room. Deke caught a glimpse of a .38 special jammed between Marco’s shoulder blades.
“Officer,” Baxter said with a quivering voice as he lowered his weapon, “you caught this thief’s accomplice, and you have my precious chalice.”
Deke saw the gold chalice in the shadowed officer’s right hand. He smiled and stepped forward. “So this is Marco, my accomplice. I think I would have chosen someone a bit calmer.”
The .38 shifted from Marco’s back and fixed on Baxter’s chest. The officer holding the revolver eased into the light for the first time.
The blue uniform seemed to confuse Baxter for an instant, then disbelieving, he stammered, “Cromwell . . . you’re Cromwell. The insurance . . . you sold it to me!”
Deke deftly relieved the dazed collector of his pistol and slid to the door. He motioned Marco away with the barrel.
“Bogus insurance to go with the bogus uniform,” Deke said, unable to contain the grin. “You see,” he continued triumphantly, “I could feel the double-cross coming. I’ve met men like you before, men who are never satisfied with what they have.”
“But . . .” Baxter stuttered. “But my call to the police, I . . .”
Deke smiled. “It wasn’t tough to splice into your line and send the call to Crowell, who, after all, is wearing the uniform.” His smile widened, and he said, “There’s something for you to remember. You get too greedy, and you can lose it all.”
Deke winked, raised the ski mask in salute and, behind his real accomplice, disappeared out the front door with the gold chalice grasped tightly in his left hand.