Read an Excerpt


by Leslie Silbert


London—8:20 p.m., the present day

The silver Daimler pulled to a stop at Eaton Square in Belgravia, an exclusive residential enclave in central London. A young baron stepped out, buttoned his dinner jacket, and reached for the long-stemmed roses resting on the seat. Nodding to his chauffeur, he began strolling past the pillared white homes, alongside the fragrant park.

It was a cool evening for spring, and his hat, thin scarf and gloves appeared entirely appropriate. No one would guess that he wasn’t wearing them for warmth. The accessories were intended to prevent anyone in the vicinity from being able to describe him later on, should they even remember seeing him, which was unlikely. An expensively dressed man in this neighborhood, with the right level of self-assurance in his stride, blended in better than camouflaged soldiers moving through a jungle.

A few minutes later, he stood at the door of a five-story townhouse on Wilton Crescent, a street shaped like its name. The lantern-lit façade was curved as well, and ivy hung from the terrace. Pretending to rap on the front door with his left hand, he surreptitiously operated a small handmade pick gun with his right—the delicate maneuvering hidden by the bouquet balanced in the crook of his right arm.

Having inserted the steel needle jutting from the gun’s muzzle into the lock, he used his index and middle fingers to adjust the long trigger and manipulate the lock’s cylinder pins. Made of walnut and steel with mother-of-pearl inlay, it was a device he’d fashioned himself. It had not been easy to leave his favorite set of antique picks at home, but out in the open like this, there simply wasn’t time to manually pick a lock he knew would have at least five internal levers. Pick guns turned a fifteen-minute operation into a matter of seconds. And while he tended to disdain anything considered de rigueur among rookie thieves, for this situation, there was little choice.

The lock’s tumblers turned, and once inside the foyer, he set down his flowers, slipped his pick gun into the holster strapped to his left forearm, then stepped around lightly with his arms in the air. Graceful movements, but the whimsical dance was not what it seemed. A soft chirp sounded, and his right wrist came to an abrupt halt as the electronic device in his platinum cuff link homed in on the hidden security panel. With a short-range electromagnetic pulse, it promptly jammed the system.

For a master thief, breaking into an ordinary home was child’s play, particularly when the owner had moved in so recently that sophisticated security measures had yet to be installed. It was like using a top SAS marksman to shoot a seated fat man from point blank range.

The baron had agreed to do it as a favor for a friend, his only friend who knew the truth, that he was something of a modern day Robin Hood. Not out of altruism, he simply had an intense dislike for the idle rich. His set. The very people whose company he kept at exclusive social clubs in London, casinos in Monaco, and posh Portofino hotels. He was a silent traitor in the ranks—filching their priceless treasures, quietly selling the items on the black market, then donating the proceeds to exactly those charitable causes that would most gall the involuntary donors. Courtesy of his most recent coup, a conservative Member of Parliament—a known xenophobe—was unwittingly funding a health clinic for destitute immigrants. The black-clad baron had snatched a Degas statuette while the MP and his wife were in the next room playing cards in their dressing gowns.

Never before had he robbed a home without having been invited in on a previous occasion. Going in blind was always a bad idea, but his friend knew the owner well, and had gathered enough information to guarantee that tonight’s theft would be a sure thing. There were as yet no pressure pads installed in the floors. No cameras, no wiring in the windows, and the safe was somewhere in the study, located on the third floor.

After climbing the stairs, he examined the study’s outer wall—the one between himself and the street—the only wall thick enough to contain a safe. Two good-sized windows, nothing behind the single painting. He turned his attention to the floor. With some strategic tapping and a practiced ear, he quickly detected a hollow beneath a corner of the intricately patterned Shiraz rug. Using a letter opener from the homeowner’s desk, he pried up a two-foot-square panel of hardwood slats and saw the safe. Around a decade old, it was a steel contraption with a Sargent & Greenleaf combination lock.

“Mr. Sargent? Mr. Greenleaf? Gentlemen, let’s see what you’ve got for me this time.” Lowering himself to the floor, the baron settled onto his side and slipped off his gloves, then placed an ear over the safe and a hand on the lock. While rotating the dial, he lightly caressed the safe door with his free hand, attempting to feel and possibly hear when the lock’s tumblers came into contact with each other, in order to calculate where the notches for the locking mechanism had been placed on each wheel.

He frowned. There was chaos beneath his fingertips. Far too many pulses. The lock was definitely a manipulation-resistant model. One with dummy notches added to the wheel edges—shallow enough to avoid interfering with the locking process, but deep enough to feel similar to legitimate contact points when an expert like himself turned the dial. With a tilt of his head, he dislodged his hat. It slipped to the floor. “Hats off, my demure darlings. You took round one. But round two, I’m afraid, is mine.”

Sitting up, he lifted his right trouser leg, opened a Velcro pouch strapped to the inside of his calf and withdrew several objects: a fine length of plastique with a V-shaped metal liner—a shaped charge fresh from an underground lab in Bratislava—a digital detonator, two coils of wire, and a small lithium battery-operated power supply. He gently arranged the plastique along the right edge of the safe door, placing it directly over each spot where the door’s steel bolts entered the frame. Courtesy of his practiced method, the explosive would slice through the bolts without affecting the safe’s interior. Toasting these contents would not do at all—the item he was after was highly flammable.

Inserting the detonator, he connected it to the power source and flipped the switch. A fifteen-second count began. Pulling his gloves back on, he used his handkerchief to wipe down the safe, threw his dinner jacket across the square hole in the floor, then moved a rolling file cabinet over it to secure the fabric. Three, two… The detonation was barely audible, muffled as it was by his jacket’s thin Kevlar lining. Wisps of smoke snaked upward as he rolled the cabinet back to its original position. Kneeling, he peered into the hole, grasped the safe’s handle, and gingerly, pulled it upward.

And there, not even singed, was an old leather-bound manuscript. He’d been told it had been buried for centuries…along with a secret his friend’s family seemed desperate to keep. Titillating stuff, to be sure. He would demand the full story before turning over his takings.

He lifted the plain black volume from the safe. It was fairly heavy, about an inch and a half thick, with leather remarkably smooth for something so old. It had no title on the outside, he noticed, nor much in the way of decoration—just thin, single gold leaf stripes glimmering along the edges of the front and back covers, and across the five raised bands on the spine. He started to open it, then caught himself. There would be ample time for that later.

With the manuscript salted away in his black rucksack, the baron spun for a quick survey of the room. The sparkle of crystal caught his eye—a dozen decanters on tiered shelving across the room, perched in rows with the formality and precision of a boy’s choir. After sniffing the contents of each and replacing the bottles with care, he poured himself a glass. Nothing—not even a getaway—should come between a man and an old cognac. The evening’s sport might have been a bore, but the refreshments were exceptional. Lifting the velvety liquid to his lips, he enjoyed what was more of a soft kiss than a sip.

The romantic interlude between connoisseur and cocktail was cut short. Harsh pulses of red light filled his glass. With a quick glance, he saw a whirling light outside the windows. Heard the sound of car doors shutting, footsteps coming closer, hushed tones.

Bewilderment wrinkled his brow. Security men on the scene already? Impossible. He’d disabled the simple system effectively, without a doubt. They must be approaching one of the adjacent homes. Maybe the neighbors were having a domestic dispute, or a child had accidentally tripped an alarm.

Softly, a door creaked. With a jolt, the baron realized it was the rear entrance of the house he was in. The place was being surrounded. This place. But he’d find a way out. Always had.

Though calm, his mind raced over the possibilities. Perhaps the inevitable had finally occurred. Perhaps the police had caught up with him after all these years. Followed him from his home, then called in for backup. He had known it would happen at some point, had meticulously planned his escape and new identity long before.

Thinking the roof his best option, he was moving across the room toward the stairwell when footfalls sounded within the house. From the floor above, from down the hall. Drawing closer. Damn, he thought; he would have to duck out one of these windows, climb to the roof from here. Peering down at the street, he saw two armed men keeping vigil…and one of them was looking up. He was trapped.

For a moment, the baron stood stock-still, mesmerized by the sound of his unexpected fate, slowly closing in. With a shake of his head, he realized how greatly he’d underestimated the opposition.

Taking a seat in a leather armchair by the windows, he placed his glass on the table before him. He then removed his left glove, revealing a large, square-cut ruby ring. With his right thumb and forefinger, he flipped back the gemstone and gazed at the well of powder hidden beneath, highly potent crystals distilled from the saliva of Australia’s blue-ringed octopus. The small, sand-colored creature, which flashed to yellow with bright blue rings when disturbed, possessed venom five hundred times more toxic than cyanide. Having decided long ago that he would sooner die than face prison, he lifted his tongue, positioned the ring just beneath, and tilted back his head. The crystals melted, and almost instantaneously, penetrated the rich vascular network on the underside of his tongue. Seconds later—faster than if he’d injected it into his arm—the poison was entering his heart.

Grimacing at the bitter taste in his mouth, he took another sip of cognac. How perfectly appropriate, he mused. Bittersweet. The flavor of his ironic demise—Europe’s most infamous gentleman thief caught during an ordinary household robbery. In spite of the tremors in his hand, he raised his glass.

His final toast. Punctuated by gunshots.



©2005 Leslie Silbert. All rights reserved.
Website design by Chris Costello.