Blending in with the shadows of a tall spruce tree as if born from their substance, he observed the building across the street and the dwindling line of guests entering. The clouds, thick and stagnant, shrouded the moon's glow and lent the night an air of mystery. A soft blanket of new snow covered the ground and helped to muffle footsteps. He smiled to himself; the perfect night for a heist.
Nymphenburg Castle was bathed in muted light, from outside as well as within. No loud and raucous celebration here. The guests would be ringing in the new millennium in stately grace and impeccable decorum. He slid back the cuff of his black tuxedo and looked at the Bulova on his wrist; time to get moving.
He was known as "Midnight", jewel thief extraordinaire. Some half-wit journalist had tagged him with the moniker early in his career, and to his dismay, it had stuck. It sounded girlish to him, but no one had asked his opinion. Now he was older and couldn't give two cents what the press wrote about him.
He strolled up the long drive, past the precision-trimmed hedges and the frozen pond with its fountain, turned off during the long winter months. In the spring, the gardens around the castle rivaled those at Versailles. Now the barren trees shook and rattled in the cold wind above him and the flowers lay dormant, waiting for Persephone's sweet smile.
At the door, he handed his invitation to a burly, craggy-faced footman. The man inclined his head and motioned him to enter. The forged document was perfect, as he knew it would be; he'd paid enough for it.
A nab of a champagne-filled flute from a passing waiter and then a leisurely stroll through the foyer to the Great Hall. Most of the rooms, as well as the east and west wings, had been cordoned off for the gala but they held only passing interest for him, anyway. The heavy Baroque ornamentation leered back at him from every corner. Former Bavarian rulers had spared no expense.
Tonight's little gathering of 300 or so guests to ring in the new millennium was the brainchild of Bavaria's Minister of Economic Development. Nymphenburg Castle, situated right in the heart of Munich, would not have been his first choice. He'd have much preferred something smaller and more isolated. As usual, no one had asked his opinion.
There was a lavish buffet set up in the main room with an abstract ice sculpture in the middle. A quartet played in the corner, a saucy Latin number. The trick was to be seen without being conspicuous. Just another face in the crowd.
He lounged in a corner and thought about the latest object of his affections. No flesh and blood woman; his quarry was much more substantive, at least in his mind. He was a jewel thief and one of the best, if not the best. He was after the "Vale of Tears", a necklace comprised of three blood-red rubies, so perfect and dark that they were almost black in color. It was part of a display entitled "Jewels of Bavaria" and had been featured in a special showing earlier in the day. Now it rested just two floors up and three rooms over. And by the time the clock struck twelve, it would be his.
Two glasses of bubbly later, he noticed her rounding a statue of Cupid. He'd seen her earlier; he couldn't help it. She was not one of those drop-dead knockouts that grace the covers of fashion magazines; her beauty crept up on you and heated your skin like the last rays of a summer sun.
He watched her approach. White Versace dress, long and high-necked - not body-hugging but still tight. Designer pumps and matching handbag. She was closer now. Honey colored hair and crystal blue eyes. Her nose was too small, her bottom lip too full. Somehow it all worked on her. It wasn't so much her looks as it was her attitude; the presence she wore like a second skin.
He didn't move an inch, just waited for her to come to him. He could smell her designer perfume now and see the necklace she wore around her neck. Well, well, this was certainly interesting. He graced her with a slow smile.
"You must think me really forward," she said, "but I noticed you when you came in earlier." Her English was flawless with only the faintest trace of an accent. "My name is Margot, Margot Helling."
He extended his hand and grasped hers lightly. Placing a lingering kiss against the delicate skin on the back of her hand, he replied, "Not forward. Captivating, but never forward."
Her answering smile was coy. "And you would be?"
"Forgive my manners, please. Garrett Anderson." She was becoming a distraction he wanted, but didn't need. Any other time but tonight. "That's a lovely necklace you're wearing."
She fingered the stones absently. "Why thank you. It's a copy you know, of the one that was on display earlier. 'das Jammertal' they call it, or 'Vale of Tears.'"
"Fascinating." Damn but that was a good copy. He'd wager his Corvette that Sergei had made it. He was the best when it came to making jewel copies. Back to business now. He made a show of looking around the room. "I'm sorry, my dear, but I promised Lady Breeden I'd dance at least once with her."
"Of course," she said, graciously.
He kissed her hand once more. "I hope I'll be seeing you later." His eyes conveyed his meaning quite clearly.
"I'd count on it," she answered, her voice dropping an octave.
She turned and left then and he drew in his breath. He felt like he'd been sucker-punched. The back of her gown was open all the way to the gentle swell of her buttocks. She was not model slim, but curvaceous. Rubenesque would be the word he'd use for her. Quite appropriate considering their surroundings.
'I've got to stop this. Concentrate, old chap, ' he admonished himself. He turned and crossed the room, seeking out a garish old dowager whose cackling laugh could be heard in all corners of the room. He led her out on the dance floor, just in case Ms. Helling was watching. Hopefully she didn't personally know the woman. If so, and she confronted him with it later, he was confident he could cover himself. After all, he'd spent the last 22 years doing just that.
The dance finished and he noted the time; fifteen minutes until midnight. Some of the guests were arming themselves with party favors already.
He started edging toward where his floor plans had shown the servant's staircase would be. A shrill voice intoned, "Luis! Oh Luis!" Of all the parties she could have attended tonight, why did Madeline von Bregen have to pick this one?
Ducking into a darkened alcove and pressing himself flat against the stones, he waited until she'd given up her search for him and joined the rest of the crowd. Great. She'd cost him two minutes that he could ill afford. That was one of the reasons he liked to work in the dead of night when no one was around. The less socialization he did on the job, the less likelihood of getting caught.
He found it amazingly simple to slip up the stairs to the third floor. He was counting on the Y2K computer glitch to give him a slight edge around the pressure-sensor casing for the necklace. It helped, too, that there was a hidden flaw in the security system. Despite their sterling reputation, Fortress Security Inc. had an embarrassingly shoddy alarm system on their own offices.
The jewels were in the upper Minstrel's Hall, a room about the size of Garrett's whole Manhattan condo. The object of his desire was in the far right corner, surrounded by a network of infrared lasers. He knelt by the black casing affixed to the wall. He'd set his watch with the clock in the main hall and checked the time now. One minute to go. As he drew a small box from an inside pocket, he could hear the merriment downstairs picking up. He attached the box, a specially modified surge suppressor, to the side of the laser casing. The infrared beams had a 3-second delay on them, from the time the beam was interrupted until the time the alarm went off. That, coupled with the 10-second delay provided by the Y2K glitch in the mainframe, should give him the time he needed to see the necklace safely in his grasp.
The guests below started to count down.
He flipped a switch on the suppressor.
The beams became visible for a split second and then disappeared again.
He crossed the floor to the glass display case.
He lifted it gingerly.
The grandfather clock in the entrance hall began to chime the hour.
"HAPPY NEW YEAR!"
Delighting in the shiver going up his spine as he grasped the stones, he carefully replaced the glass top, and stepped back outside of the laser area.
Just in time, too, as his watch chimed with the 10 second count off. He removed the black box and slipped it back into his pocket. He spared a few moments to hold the necklace up for inspection. Through the dim moonlight coming in through the stained glass windows, he admired the workmanship. The intricate links in the gold chain seemed to have been wrought by a fairy hand, so tiny and perfect were they.