Desiree Jacobs deadpanned a steady look below the eye of a security camera in the world-famous Museo de Arte Mejicana, an ornate building embedded in the heart of Mexico’s capital city. Her gaze held on the Alfredo Ramos Martínez painting in front of her, a colorful rural scene depicting native women carrying sacks of produce on their backs. That’s it, Señor Camera. Take a good film of this browsing turista, because mousy Myra is all you’ll see.
“Señores and señoras, we will move on to the work of Francisco Goitia,” the tour guide said. “Not as well known as others, he was still one of the great Mexican painters of the last century. Goitia reflected the heart of his people with great love and passion.”
The guide went on with her spiel, and Desi trailed the group like an obedient tourist. Her flat-footed, slump-shouldered gait helped her fall farther and farther behind. The group disappeared around a corner, and Desi stopped beside a custodial closet.
Heart rate quickening, she glanced both ways. All clear. She pulled a pin from beneath her gray wig and worked the lock. A moment later, she stepped into the closet and shut the door. Standing in the dark, she smiled. No one in the tour group would miss the dowdy little nobody who never said a word and avoided eye contact.
Desi shrugged out of her backpack, a big no-no for a visitor to haul around in a museum. But a ruckus in the foyer, caused by a street person only too willing to earn a fistful of pesos, had helped her melt into the tour group before anyone could demand she check her bag at the desk.
Not even the tour guide had given mousy Myra a second glance since. Hopefully the hungry-looking begger she hired had made good his escape from the irate museum staff so he could enjoy his well-gotten gains.
Grinning, Desi got to work removing her frumpy clothes, wig, and blue contact lenses.
If she and Max had miscalculated on the smallest detail, those dirty, rotten Greybecks would score big again. Her jaw clenched. That couldn’t happen. Her future–and the futures of those who trusted her–depended on success.
Dad, I won’t let you down. He wasn’t alive to defend himself. She was his legacy. His hope. Tonight’s heist, and the aftermath, would redeem his reputation.
Desi pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them. What would Daddy have done while biding his time in the dark? She knew. Pray.
At midnight, snug inside the ventilation duct, Desiree peered from the vent through night-vision goggles that bathed the darkened museum showroom in a surreal greenish glow. Her gaze focused on a display case containing the golden headdress of Pakal, mightiest of the ancient Mayan kings. This single item, dating from a few centuries after Christ, was the pride and joy of the Museo de Arte Mejicana.
Not for long.
“You are mine, Your Majesty,” Desi murmured in south-of-the border Spanish.
Behind the mask over her mouth, the words echoed hollowly. She’d practiced for hours to breathe right without the need to think about it–inhaling through her nose and exhaling through her mouth. Tubes from her mask trailed over her shoulders and sent the lung-warmed air down the shaft, away from the vent opening.
In the showroom, the SmartSensor hunted for an infrared heat signature larger than a mouse. She might be small, but a mouse she wasn’t. Her breathing apparatus allowed her to move close enough to shut the system down.
Desi checked her watch. A few more seconds and… Okay, time. The first of a series of stink bombs should have gone off elsewhere in the museum, drawing the security guard from the control room to check out the smell. Now she had ten, maybe fifteen minutes, while he chased the elusive scent from one site to the next, like an odorous animal scampering ahead of him.
Elbows clamped to her sides in the enclosed space, she wiggled a thin box out of the breast pocket of her jumpsuit. Max’s Miracle, Desi had dubbed the gadget, brainchild of the best accomplice a thief could ever have. Clayton Greybeck, the electronics expert for Greybeck and Sons Security Company, might consider himself a techno-god and the Casanova of geekdom, but Desi knew a West Texas ranch girl named Maxine Webb who could think rings around him. Too bad Max had to sit this caper out. A sick kid and urgent damage-control projects had kept her home in Boston. Desi was solo on this one, but their plan was foolproof.
Maybe. She swallowed. It had to be.
She flipped the gadget on and pointed the lighted end at the dualaction motion detector/heat sensor on the other side of the room. The pinprick of light danced around the unit. Man, it was hard to aim in the cramped conditions. Desi’s breathing rasped, and a drop of sweat filmed her vision. She set the gadget down, lifted her goggles, and wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve.
“You’ve got one chance to hit the target spot-on,”Max had said. “Then the lithium battery’s dry, and you’re toast.”
Well, she’d be toast anyway if she fooled around any longer. She scooped up the gadget, pointed, and blasted. A pop and a little puff of smoke came from the sensor box. No more heat or motion detector.
Desi grinned. Amazing what a pulse of electromagnetic energy could do.
Desi tugged on a rope attached to her waist, and a cordless hot knife slid into her fingers. She fired up the knife and sliced through the bolts holding the vent cover in place. The grill clattered to the marble floor, and Desi’s heart kabumped. Easy now, girl. The guard should be out of earshot, chasing smells at the other end of the building. A museum ought to have two night guards, but the board of directors liked to pinch pesos. Good deal for her tonight. Hard to say whether that would hold true tomorrow.
She lowered a nylon rope through the opening. A yank proved the line held fast on a joint inside the duct. Desi squirmed onto her back, pulled her torso out, and slapped a pair of short-handled suction cups onto the wall on either side of the vent. She hauled the rest of her body out of the duct, and then released the cup handles. Her feet met the floor, impact flowing through her body, familiar as a routine dismount from the parallel bars.
A security camera in the corner watched every move, transmitting it to the empty control room. Desi waved at the electronic eye. No one would watch the footage until the theft was discovered, and with her mask and goggles on, they couldn’t make identification.
A tug on another line brought her pack out of the vent. She removed two wooden sticks an inch thick and eighteen inches long, one of them fitted with a lever, and screwed them together. Next she took out a square of plastic framed with cord, unfolded it to its full three-foot by three-foot size, and attached it to the handle. The resulting object resembled an oversized butterfly net, using plastic instead of gauze, and with a cord and hollow tube sticking out at the spot where the plastic joined the handle. But this was no insect catcher. It was a history-maker.
Smiling behind her mask, Desi took her net and her backpack and stepped up to the case that displayed the bust of a dusky-skinned Mayan. A skull piece of beaten gold hugged the statue’s head, and above it arched a golden cornhusk encrusted with jewels–a tribute to the nourishing golden grain the Mayans had worshiped more than the metal. Magnificent!
Desi itched to step up and grab, but that would be a fatal mistake. Four tiny red eyes guarded the case–wireless heat sensors. If a gawker got too close, alarms went off. Desi tugged on neoprene gloves, and then pulled a metal canister like a mini fire extinguisher from her pack.
She attached the nozzle to the tube on the net.
From a safe distance, she lowered the plastic over the case and pulled the lever on the handle. The net snicked shut like a noose over the case. Desi turned a knob on the metal canister and released gas at a temperature of ninety degrees below zero. The glass instantly iced over. So did the heat sensors. They’d be out of commission for just long enough.
Moving quickly now, Desi released the lever, loosened the suction, and pulled the plastic net off the case. She worked her pick in the lock, and a click signaled release. The gloves protected her hands as she took the cover from the pedestal. Pulse throbbing, she lifted the headdress from the model Mayan.
Heavens! The mighty Pakal would have needed mighty neck muscles to support his crown. Hugging the headdress with one arm, she took a padded bag from her pack and eased the antiquity inside. She put the bag into her pack on top of her Myra disguise.
From the looted case, the bare head of the Mayan pouted at her with thick lips and cold eyes. A shiver darted down her spine. “Sorry, buddy,” she whispered. “Let’s see if we can fix you up.”
She took a chip from her pocket, placed it on his head, and pressed a button. The crown of Pakal appeared on the model’s head. Desi pulled her hand back through the hologram. Quickly she fitted the cover on the pedestal and retreated. Exhilaration sang in her veins.
The headdress was hers!
Not if she didn’t skedaddle pronto. Was the guard still chasing stink? She checked her watch, and her heart stuttered. He could be headed back to the control room right now.
Desi shoved her equipment and backpack into a corner out of sight of the security camera, which was trained on the Pakal case. She slung the heavy sack containing the crown onto her shoulders and shinnied up the rope to the vent opening. Grunting, she stuffed the pack into the hole and followed it fast.
She plunged into the pitch darkness of the ductwork. Here, even her night-vision goggles were nearly blind. Smooth metal passed beneath her stomach, punctuated by seam bands. Her nose tickled. Ah-choo! The sound echoed, and she froze. Please,God, don’t let the guard hear that. Clenching her jaw, she crawled on.
Where was that left turn? She passed her hand along the duct wall. She was supposed to come to it before she reached the vent in the custodial closet where she’d waited. If she missed the turn, she’d have to push backward and find it. Not fun in this cracker box. Good thing she wasn’t claustrophobic.
Her hand passed into air.
Desi stuffed the crown into the opening, and it jammed tight. Great! She tugged the bag, but it didn’t budge. Double great! The duct she was supposed to follow out of the building must be smaller than the one she was in. The schematic she and Max had used to plan the caper had shown it as older, but the drawing hadn’t mentioned that the older ductwork was also narrower. Even if she got the crown loose, she wouldn’t fit into the opening herself. Triple great!
Plan B. Desi closed her eyes and concentrated on recalling the building plans. If she continued down this passage, where would she end up?
Her thoughts scurried like mice in a maze. What was the matter with her? A sound like a rushing wind filled her head, and the atmosphere closed in. Heavy. Dark. She could die here. Never see light again.
Sucking air through her nose, her mind cleared. She ripped the mask off and flung it away, along with the useless goggles. No wonder she couldn’t think. After that sneeze, she’d started breathing in through her mouth, getting mostly her own exhaled carbon dioxide from the tubes down her back. She could have killed herself without realizing what she was doing.
Buckle down, woman. First order of business–get the crown unstuck, and that would take old-fashioned elbow grease. Desi jerked and tugged. How had she jammed the antiquity so tightly into the small space? Poor judgment–no doubt a side effect of her near asphyxiation.
She gave a mighty yank. With a crack and a rip, the pack sprang free. Her mouth went dry. She’d better not have damaged the headdress.
No time to speculate. Now that her mind was clear, she knew this duct would take her to the elevator shaft, where she could climb to the roof and then leave the building via the fire escape. Not as clear-cut as a short crawl to the rear workroom where she could disable a simple alarm and walk out the back door, pretty as you please, but it would have to do.
Thirty minutes later, Desi’s feet left the last rung of the fire escape and touched the packed dirt of a deserted alley outside the museum building. Mexico City’s cool January air refreshed her lungs. Stillness enfolded her as she gazed toward the velvet blackness of a sky populated with fading stars. This was the magic time before dawn, when even the cantina music had fallen silent.
Tension melted from her muscles. She was a walking dust bunny and could stand under a hot shower for a week, but she’d done it–beaten the Greybeck security system and grabbed the greatest prize of her career.
But had she damaged the piece during her exit? Her heart hit her toes. She pulled the padded bag from her pack and ran her hands over the crown’s outline. No obvious deformities. Maybe she should get back to her hotel and check.
No, this couldn’t wait. She was as private here as anywhere. Desi placed the bag on a crate where a shaft of light from a street pole reached into the alley. Her fingers trembled on the drawstring, and her pulse throbbed.
If she’d harmed the headdress, she’d run shrieking into the street. She’d turn herself in at the nearest police station. She’d sell her home to pay for the repairs. She’d bow and kiss Clayton Greybeck’s feet. Blech! She’d step down as head of HJ Securities. She’d…
Desi gaped at the flakes and chunks that slipped from the bag along with the headdress, minus the tip of one cornhusk leaf. Her jaw snapped shut. Flakes? She picked one up and tasted it. Paint! Chunks? She cradled one in her palm and examined it. Lead!
She gave a strangled cry. Those double-dealing, dastardly cowards. She’d spent days of planning and a sleepless, nerve-racking night to pilfer a piece of junk. Not to mention just about having heart failure when she thought she’d damaged a priceless antiquity.
Those Greybecks…no, wait. Not them–the museum board of directors. A tight smile stretched her lips. The stuffed shirts suspected she might get away with it, and they’d hedged their bets by making sure she wouldn’t lay her hands on the real deal. A backhanded compliment if she ever heard of one. Worse, Greybeck and Sons must have been informed she was coming–a violation of the provisional contract with HJ Securities.
Desi stuffed the leaden fake into the bag, then swept the chunks and flakes into her palm and put them in the pocket of her jumpsuit opposite the one that held Max’s miracle gadget. Let’s see what the august gentlemen of the board had to say for themselves tomorrow– er, today. She glanced at her watch. A few hours remained to plan a suitable response, and–
“There she is!” a man grated in Spanish. “Get her!”
Desi whipped around to find three large shapes charging toward her up the alley. The menacing rhythm of booted feet sent her heart into overdrive.
“Run!” Did she holler that out loud? Yes, but it got her moving.
She grabbed the bag and backpack and tore up the alley. The leaden crown weighted her steps. Why not fling it at them? The worthless thing might do good damage. She clutched the bag. Too stubborn for her own good. A slingshot swing would work better if they got closer.
Desi burst onto the deserted street. To her right, voices shouted from the other end of the museum, followed by more galloping feet. She took off in the opposite direction. Canopied adobe buildings flashed past.
“Don’t let her get away!”
Desi made out the words from the garble of frenzied Spanish behind her. What did these thugs want? Did they think she had the real headdress? Well, duh! Her blood chilled. Men would kill for the crown of Pakal.
She glanced over her shoulder. Five of them–and gaining on her. Desi’s lungs burned. Bother this altitude! She wasn’t used to 7,000-plus feet above sea level, and she couldn’t run much longer. Correction. She couldn’t run any longer.
Wheezing, Desi stopped and turned. The man in the lead faltered, and the others passed him. Smart fellow. She whirled the bag by the drawstring…faster…faster.
Her pursuers slowed. Streetlights bathed their looming figures, but she couldn’t make out faces beneath dark clothing and ski masks. One of the men put up his hands–big hands, spatulate, with index fingers longer than the middle fingers. “Be careful, señorita.”
She breathed in air heavy with spicy cooking scents from the closed restaurant beside her. “You want it? Go get it.” She let go of the string, and the bag flipped end over end to land above their heads in the striped canopy over the entrance.
A collective groan came from her pursuers. They stared at the canopy. Desi took off. Without the crown’s weight, she could do the few hundred feet to her car. But only if they didn’t chase her. Her energy meter had plunged into the wimp zone.
She dashed around a corner into an alley, leaped over the huddled form of a street beggar, and reached a private lot behind a building. Her breath caught. Where was her rental VW Bug? She’d paid good money to the manager for overnight parking. It better be…
There! Somebody had parked a hulking Mercedes beside it, blocking her view. She opened the Bug, threw her pack inside, and collapsed behind the wheel, pulse off the Richter scale.
Desi peeled out of the lot with nary a glimpse of her pursuers. Fine! She’d left them holding the bag. It was their own fault if they ended up with a two-ton sack of nothing.
Laughter bubbled up…until the tears came. All she had for all she’d done was a whole lot of nothing too.
From the Trade Paperback edition.