Read an Excerpt
If twenty-nine-year-old Frances Jefferies had learned anything from her years as a pickpocket, it was the importance of blending in to one's surroundings.
Today, February 5, her task was to steal a valuable brooch from Fortier's, a highend jewelry store in Las Vegas. To blend in with the Wednesday bling-shopping crowd, she'd put on a red-and-leopard-print top underneath a loose-fitting Yves Saint Laurent white silk pantsuit, and a pair of killer Dolce & Gabbana stilettos.
Time for one last practice run.
She retrieved two similar-size brooches from a dresser drawer. One, a rhinestone flower-petaled pin, was an exact replica of the diamondencrusted Lady Melbourne brooch stolen ten years ago from a museum in Amsterdam. Its whereabouts had been unknown until it suddenly, and mysteriously, surfaced at Fortier's a few days ago. She slipped the replica into an inside pocket of her jacket and set the other pin on her dresser.
Watching her reflection in the dresser mirror, she practiced the sleight-of-hand trick, deftly plucking the brooch from the pocket and swiftly replacing it with the other pin, three times in succession. Each switch went smoothly.
Now for the finishing touch. She selected a pair of antique garnet earrings from her jewelry box and put them on.
Leaning closer to the mirror, she swept a strand of her ash-blond hair off her face, tucking it lightly into her chignon. Her gaze slipped to her lower cheek. This close, she could see the faint outline of silicon gel underneath her meticulously applied makeup. For anyone else to see it, they would have to be inches away, and she never let anyone get that close.
A few moments later, she walked into the living room, where her dad sat in his favorite chair, shuffling a deck of cards. A basketball game was on TV, the crowd yelling as a player dunked the ball.
"Still working on The Trick That Fooled Houdini?" she asked.
He grinned and set the cards on a side table. "Like Houdini, I can't figure out how Vernon did it, either."
Dai Vernon, Houdini's contemporary, had devised a card routine where a spectator's chosen card always appeared at the top of the deck. Houdini, who bragged that he could figure out any magician's trick, never solved this one.
Her dad, who'd worked as a magician his entire life, had never solved it, either. Sometimes he jokingly referred to it as The Trick That Fooled Houdini and Jonathan Jefferies.
"Going to work?" he asked.
His thinning dark hair was neatly parted on the side, and a pair of reading glasses hung on a chain around his neck. He had a slight paunch, but otherwise stayed in shape from daily walks and a fairly healthy diet, if one overlooked his love of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
She looked at his faded Hawaiian-print shorts and Miami Heat T-shirt with its ripped sleeve, wishing he'd let her buy him some new clothes. But he liked to stick with what was "tried-and-true," from his haircut to clothes.
"Yes, off to work. If I leave in a few minutes, I should be there by three. The owner got back from a late lunch an hour ago. He and the security guard will be the only employees in the jewelry store the rest of the afternoon."
"Good girl, you did your homework." He paused, noticing her earrings. "Oh," he said, his eyes going soft, "you're wearing your mother's jewelry."
Frances's mother, Sarah, had been her father's tried-and-true soul mate. When she eloped at nineteen with a little-known Vegas magician, her wealthy family disinherited her. If my upbringing had been happy, she'd told her daughter, disowning me might have mattered. Instead, it released me to a better life.
The only items Sarah Jefferies had of her family's were a small jewelry collection, gifted to her by her late grandmother.
"Mom's earrings will be my calling card today," Frances said, touching one of them. She loved antique jewelry, especially early-nineteenth-century Georgian, the era of these earrings and the Lady Melbourne brooch.
"She's happy to know she's helping. We're proud of you, Francie."
He often spoke of his wife in the present tense, which used to bother Frances, but she accepted it more these days. Sometimes she even envied her dad's sense of immediacy about his late wife. Frances was painfully aware it had been four years this past summer July 15, 1:28 in the afternoonwhen they'd lost her, and shamefully aware of the pain she'd brought her parents in the months leading up to her mother's death.
Nearly five years ago, Frances had been arrested on a jewelry theft. It had been humiliating to be caught, but agonizing to see the hurt on her parents' faces. Especially after she admitted to them the theft hadn't been a onetime deal. After learning sleight-of-hand tricks from her dad as a kid, she'd segued into picking pockets in her teens, then small jewelry thefts by the time she was twenty. At the time, she selfishly viewed her thefts as once-a-year indulgences, but it didn't matter if she'd stolen once or dozens of timeswhat'd she done had been wrong.
Jonathan Jefferies blamed himself for his daughter's criminal activities, believing she had resorted to theft because he'd been unable to adequately support his family as a magician. When Frances was growing up, the family had sometimes relied on friends for food, or went without electricity, or suffered through eviction because there hadn't been enough money to pay the rent.
The judge, moved by Frances's difficult upbringing and her mother's failing health, had offered her a second chance. Instead of giving her a ten-year prison sentence, he'd suspended her sentence as long as she met certain conditions, a common solution for people with a high potential for rehabilitation.
For Frances, her conditions were threefold. One, either attend college or obtain full-time legitimate employment, including any position where she applied her skills for a positive end. Two, pay restitution to the victim. Three, do not break any local, state or federal laws.
The judge had added an ominous warning to the last one. Miss Jefferies, that means you don't even pick up a dime off the street if it isn't yours. As much as your suspended sentence is a gift, it is also your burden. For the duration of your suspension, if you appear before the bench for any infraction, no matter how minor, the court will evaluate your case with a more critical, censorious eye. And that's mild compared to what a prosecutor will do.
As if she had a yen to ever break a law again.
As far as college or a job, her probation officer matched her "skills" to Vanderbilt Insurance, a company that was looking for an investigator to track stolen jewels and antiquities.
Sometimes these investigations, such as the one today, required her pickpocket skills. She would be taking back the Lady Melbourne brooch, which was the legal property of Vanderbilt Insurance, since they had already paid the fifty-thousand-dollar insurance claim from the museum.
"Remember to feed Teller around six," Frances said. "Any later, he gets cranky." She'd named her cat after her favorite magician.
"He gets cranky?" Her dad shot a look at the fat golden-haired Persian cat lying sprawled across the back of the couch. "That cat is so laid-back, sometimes I put a mirror under his nose to make sure he's still breathing."
"I know you think he has no personality."
"I never said that. I merely suggested he might be suffering from narcolepsy." Yells from the crowd drew his attention back to the TV. "Idiot refs," he muttered, "calling fouls against Miami again. Might as well take off those black-and-white shirts and wear Celtics jerseys."
With a smile, she touched her dad's shoulder. He grumped a lot at these sports games, but she'd take that any day over those lengthy silences after he first moved in.
It hadn't been easy convincing him to move out of the apartment he'd shared with her mom. It wasn't long after her mother's death, and when her dad wasn't frozen with grief, he was going through old photo albums, cleaning or filling ink into one of her favorite fountain pens, watching movies they'd seen together, even the "chick flick" ones he swore he'd never see again.
He didn't want to be a burden, and Frances hadn't wanted to suggest he needed help.
"Still auditioning as an opener for that lounge act?" she asked.
He flexed his fingers. "Don't think so. Need the ol' hands to stop giving me a bad time."
His arthritis flare-ups were making it increasingly difficult for him to perform magic tricks. Moving his fingers as he practiced the card trick helped keep his joints somewhat mobile and stymied the arthritis.
"Gotta take off now, Dad."
"Meeting Charlie afterward?"
She typically met with Charlie Eden, her boss and mentor at Vanderbilt Insurance, right after an assignment to discuss the case. Although it was more common for Vanderbilt investigators to only provide written reports to their bosses, her situation was unique, as Charlie submitted monthly accounts to the court on her progress at Vanderbilt.
Today, if all went well, she hoped to also hand him the Lady Melbourne brooch.
But there was more to the case.
Vanderbilt believed the thief who stole the pin had also stolen four fifth-century-BC Greek silver tet-radrachm coins worth several million dollars from a New York numismatic event two years ago. Both thefts had similar crime signatures, including state-of-the-art technology to circumvent surveillance systems and cutting torches to access vaults.
"That Charlie, he's a good man. Husband material, if you ask me."
"Dad, I've told you before, I don't feel that way about him."
"But he's gobsmacked over you."
"Gobsmacked? What does that mean?"
"Astonished. Over the moon. Heard a sports announcer use it the other day."
"Did he say he was over the moon about me?"
"No." He picked up his cards and started flipping through them. "Don't need to be a mentalist to read that man's brain. He'd like to make you his Zig Zag Girl."
Zig Zag was the name of a magic trick Jonathan Jef-feries used to perform with his wife, where he appeared to cut her into thirds, yet she'd emerge completely unharmed. The secret was that the true magician was her mom, who knew when to zig and zag to make the illusion look real. Jonathan, who credited his wife with the magic that made their marriage work, liked to call her his Zig Zag Girl.
He flipped the top card over and frowned. "Plus, he's a lawyer."
Charlie, nearly fifteen years older than Frances, was a very successful lawyer. Women in the office swore he looked like Michael Douglas in his salad days, which was probably why Frances thought of the villain Gordon Gekko every time she saw him. Charlie had the distinguished career, dapper clothes, perennially tanned, handsome looks, but something about him turned her off. Couldn't quite put her finger on it.
"God help me if he were a neurosurgeon." She leaned over and planted a light kiss on her dad's forehead.
This close, she caught a whiff of peanut butter. The man was incorrigible, and she was ready to say as much when she caught the pain in his eyes as he glanced at her cheek.
She quickly straightened, looked around for her clutch bag. "There's some leftover Chinese in the fridge. Maybe enough lettuce for a salad. Lay off the peanut butter, okay? I know," she said, anticipating his argument, "it's full of nutrients, and saturated fats are a good thing, but the doctor said one serving a day, which I believe you've already had."
"Bought some Spam the other day," he said, ignoring her instruction. "I'll probably make a sandwich with it."
"We're pathetic. One of us needs to learn how to cook."
"Yeah, your mom spoiled us. She'd never opened a can of soup when I met her, but after we got married, that girl " He gave his head a wistful shake. "Studied cookbooks the way she did her old college books. By the time you were born, she made the best cheeseburger this side of Milwaukee. Some fancy French foods, too, when we had the money. What was that one with chicken and wine?"
"Coq au vin."
"Yeah, that's it. We should learn how to make that one of these days."
But they wouldn't. Sometimes Frances wondered if the two of them used their lack of cooking skills as a way of holding on to her mother. If neither of them replaced Sarah Jefferies's role as family chef, then that spot would always be hers.
"Wonder where I left my bag," she muttered, looking around.
"On the dining-room table we never eat at. Hey, baby girl, call me when you're done? I'll keep my cell phone next to me. I worry about you on these cases."
"You know me, Miss Cautious. I'll be fine. But I promise to call when I'm done."
Her dad had never owned a cell phone before she bought him one after he moved in. He thought they were frivoloussaid phones were things to get away from, not have strapped to your body at all times. But after she explained she wanted to stay in touch, especially when she was out working a case, he gave in.
Walking briskly to the dining room, Frances called out, "I should be home around eight."
"So it's dinner with Charlie, eh?"
"Business dinner," she corrected, grabbing her bag. She opened it to double check that she had the key fob for her rental car.
"Valentine's Day is next week, you know," he yelled. "Maybe you two could"
"No, we couldn't," she yelled back. "Love you. Bye!"
As she shut the front door behind her, Frances wished her dad would get off this Charlie matchmaking kick. She made good money, could comfortably support the two of them, so unless Ryan Gosling wandered into her life with a "Frances Forever" tattoo over his heart, she was fine without a boyfriend or husband.
Frances glanced at the distant dark clouds and hoped they weren't an omen. Despite her analytical side, she had a superstitious streak. Even after days of preparation, she'd still get "preshow" jitters.
Part of her suspended sentence had been to see a therapist, a lovely older woman named Barbara. She'd suggested that whenever Frances got the jitters, to remind herself she could only control what was in her power and let everything else take its course.
Only problem with that thinking was that Frances liked to control every aspect of her cases. Liked to know every nuance of an investigation, every possible fact she could dredge up. It gave her confidence. Some people felt she had too much confidence, but that was their perception. Or, she liked to think, an acknowledgment of her well-crafted illusion.
But letting everything else take its course?
That would take magical thinking on her part, something even a magician's daughter couldn't conjure up.