He had made only cursory plans to steal the largest ruby in the world – and, perhaps inevitably, he was caught before he was even deemed red-handed. He served at her pleasure and was released shy of his fifty-third. He then tried again.
On his return to the top floor of the high tower where the gem, nested on a tuffet, beneath a bell jar and neatly labelled The Glam Coral, he discovered, across the carpet, that another thief was there before him; an angular hipped woman with bobbed hair. She was eyeing the prize.
He stood in the shadow of a cabinet of bones and watched her work. The security guard who sat on a chair by the door, and the other exhibition visitors, a Dutch party, paid her no attention. She was slim and as she tucked a constant errant length of blonde hair behind her ear. The tip of her tongue protruded.
The tuffet was medieval looking (faded curlicues of pale green surrounded by stitched creatures, such as paradisal birds with elaborate blue tail feathers; mythic beasts with flared nostrils, armoured scales; flying fish with silly faces). It had belonged at one time to some ancient and largely unbearable European family. It was couched upon another simpler cushion, which rested on a complicated, weighted alarm system; this much he knew.
She chose her moment carefully and exchanged the ruby for a bag of sugar. She slipped the gem into a brown paper bag and walked toward the door, ignored by the man in the peaked cap, the Dutch tourists. Her cool shadow brushed him by the cabinet of bones, and into the lift that seemed to be waiting just for her, she stepped.
He left immediately and hurried down the stairs where he found her again at the tail end of a queue that waited at a checkpoint barrier to exit the building. He drew her smell and fell at once beneath her spell.
The checkpoint guards were of a higher calibre here, wore darker uniforms, displayed gold flashes on their arms, and were aided by silent wands that they passed over each person’s body. They had a curious and intimidating way with their eyes, also. It was as if they could read minds; though, surely this was fantasy.
After some time, the two of them had edged closer to the barrier and he wondered just what he would do once they made it through security. He figured he would strike up a conversation, perhaps come on like some Dutch man; yes, a stranger to your fine city, in search of some street. Perhaps, as she offered him direction, he could snatch the paper bag from her. Her hands were alabaster. He imagined them cool to the touch.
And then a strange thing. As she approached the barrier, she turned, still moving, thrust the paper bag toward him with a gesture irresistible, passed beneath the silent wands, through the barrier, and was on the street.
The paper bag felt good. He dreamed a dozen new adventures in as many seconds: a yacht on sun spangled water; a roulette wheel slowing into focus; an ornate headboard, silken sheets; a show girl troupe, flashing legs; a dining table ringed with laughter; a meadowed woman on a picnic blanket; an Italian car, shaped like a knuckle, winding down a mountain road; three magpies perched on a wire; her hand of alabaster…
The wands made a surprising sound as he passed beneath them; something like a startled cat caught napping in the summer shade of an orchard. Their hands were like black steel. And, as they marched him, double time and quite roughly toward a door marked PRIVATE, he glanced over his shoulder to the street beyond the glass, but she was gone.