The first sign of trouble in paradise came when the small ferrety man in the white tuxedo jacket fell from the roof of the casino. It was a sign that ought to have been quite hard to ignore, given that he took his plunge at 3am, just as Michael and I were leaving the casino, and landed with a sickening thud just a few feet away from us. Naturally there were shouts and screams and a crowd quickly gathered. But this was the kind of place where nothing was allowed to interfere with the business of pleasure for long. The casino staff soon had the area roped off and the police were hastily summoned. Within forty minutes the lifeless body of the man, whose presence up on the roof at that hour nobody seemed quite able to explain, had been carried away, the steps hosed down and the familiar air of opulent ennui settled over the resort once more.
Certainly by the time Michael and I were strolling back along the boulevard the following morning in search of breakfast we had all but forgotten the incident. To be honest I was more preoccupied by that unfortunate two of hearts which had spoiled a quite fantastic run of naturals at the baccarat table last night. I was still up on the week overall but, sensitive like any good gambler to the vagaries of fortune, I wondered whether this might not be a sign that it was time to switch to blackjack. Michael had never really embraced the gambling in the same way I had but he enjoyed casino society nonetheless and as we strolled along he was full of gossip about who was currently flush, who was broke and who had taken to sleeping with which croupier in an effort to extend their lines of credit.
We had been on the Riviera for almost a week by now. As usual we’d come in search of one of the rooms of Sturridge’s prison that lay somewhere among the smart hotels and swanky villas lining the seafront but it had to be admitted that we hadn’t really been searching all that hard, seduced instead by the aura of 50s era glamour that pervaded this particular quarter. I suppose we ought by now to have learned our lesson about the dangers inherent in lingering too long in any one location of the landscape but in this haven of sun and relaxation the business of finding Sturridge seemed always to belong to tomorrow.
We were just settling down at a pavement table outside one of the boulevard cafés when we were distracted by a sudden shout. We looked up to find ourselves being hailed in a cheerful cockney accent by a man seated just a few tables along. There was an awkward pause whilst we both tried to identify the round rosy face gazing expectantly at us. To be fair, there was nothing particularly distinctive about the face and a lot had happened since we had last encountered it. It took quite some effort, sweeping through the dustier corners of my memory, before I was finally rewarded with a recollection of the same face beaming at us beneath the gaudy lights of a Havana nightclub, its owner clutching anxiously at an ill-fitting deer-stalker hat.
“Sid Hitchens!” It was Michael who dredged the name up from God-knew-where, blurting it out with a mixture of triumph and relief.
“Come and join us!” cried out the one-time Sherlock Holmes. “More coffee and croissants here please mate,” he cheerily demanded of a passing waiter before turning to his companion, a pale, slender woman wearing a large sun hat. “Here Fliss, you remember Michael and Natasha, don’t you? They were in on that missing showgirl business at the Copacabana.”
As she folded away her newspaper I recognised Felicity Fortescue, owner of the eponymous detective agency we had consulted in our earliest days in the landscape. “Of course, how could I forget?” she said, regarding us with a thin brittle smile. “Michael took me out for drinks on the Calle Grande. We had a most pleasant evening.”
The brief look of alarm which flitted across Michael’s face suggested his memories of the evening might not be quite so pleasant. He took his seat with the nervous air of a man who has just been told that there may be a bomb planted beneath it and who was readying himself to leg it at the first hint of a ticking clock.
“Well, well, fancy bumping into you two here,” enthused Sid, apparently oblivious to any tension. “What brings you to this part of the Riviera? Hey, did you ever find that pal of yours that you were looking for?”
“We did,” I said, “but then we sort of lost him again.” Between us, Michael and I related our by now rather polished tale of the Explorer’s Club, Sturridge and the 273 scattered rooms of his prison.
“Christ! Sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you there,” Sid exclaimed when we had finished.
“Are you really saying that you intend to find every single one of these 273 rooms?” said Felicity with an expression that seemed to combine disbelief with mild disapproval. “It sounds to me a very dangerous, if not to say rather tedious, affair.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s one way to see the landscape,” Sid good-naturedly countered. “And I’ll bet you’ll have a few adventures and meet some interesting folks along the way.”
“That’s certainly true,” agreed Michael. “In fact, we met a friend of yours in the course of our searches not so long ago. Jerry Tinsdale.”
“Really?” replied Felicity and for just a moment her eyebrows flew up so high they were in danger of knocking her hat off. But she swiftly returned her expression to something more neutral, though not without apparent effort. “I’m afraid Lord Jeremy and I have rather lost touch lately,” she continued airily. “Pressures of business and such like. How was he?” The question was asked with studied casualness.
“Perhaps I’d better let Natasha answer that – she spent more time with him than I did,” said Michael with such a mischievous grin that I could cheerfully have kicked him under the table if only he hadn’t been smart enough to keep his legs out of the way.
“Oh well, you know, he was looking pretty good… Seemed quite fit, I suppose…” My own effort at a casual reply became a touch strained as I felt Felicity’s eyes boring into me. “We just helped him out a bit with a case he was working on. Detective stuff, you know,” I added, wishing the sun didn’t suddenly feel quite so hot upon my cheeks.
“He still working the hard-boiled racket?” Sid asked. “The last we’d heard was that he’d moved to some big American city and taken up with a new partner.”
“That’s right. Darryl Forrest is his partner’s name,” I confirmed.
Felicity’s face twisted into a pained expression. “I’m afraid it’s always been one of Lord Jeremy’s faults that he’s all too easily led astray,” she said with a heavy sigh. “And now look where it’s got him. Chasing mobsters and tarts with some American hoodlum.”
“Woody’s no hoodlum,” returned Michael with a frown. “He’s a bit rough around the edges perhaps but he’s a good guy.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s alright in his way,” Felicity dismissively replied. “And of course one is glad to see Lord Jeremy has at least stuck to detective work this time, whatever the calibre of his business. But I’m afraid this guns and gangsters nonsense is hardly fitting work for a man of his talents.”
“I don’t know, I think you might be underestimating the genre,” I suggested lightly. “It takes a quick wit to stay in one piece for long in that game.”
Felicity responded with such a look of sour disapproval that I thought it prudent to enact a quick change of subject. “So what is it that brings you guys to the Riviera?” I asked. “Are you still running that detective agency of yours?”
Felicity shook her head with another heavy sigh. “To tell the truth the agency ran out of steam some time ago. I gave it up altogether once I paired up with Sidney.” She laid a peculiarly delicate emphasis on the phrase ‘paired up’ so that I wasn’t sure whether she meant it in a purely business or a romantic sense.
Before I could figure out a suitably tactful way of addressing the distinction Sid breezily added, “We operate strictly on the other side of the law these days. It’s less trouble and the rewards are much better.”
“Do you mean to say you’re professional criminals now?” I asked curiously.
“Gone back to the heist game,” confirmed Sid proudly. “Best trade in the world.”
A sudden gleam of interest entered Michael’s eyes. “You’re not here on the Riviera to do a job by any chance?”
“We’re not here to do a job,” replied Felicity haughtily. “We’re here for the job.” She left a dramatic pause before adding in a confidential tone, “The Dirwali rubies.”
Both Michael and I looked at her blankly.
“You must have heard of the Dirwali rubies, surely?” insisted Felicity in disbelief. “They are to go on display at the Hotel Majestic tomorrow for five weeks before they are auctioned in Paris. Everybody is talking about them.”
I could only shrug apologetically in response. If everybody was talking about them they’d neglected to include us in the conversation.
“They’re referred to as the Dirwali rubies due to the extraordinary clarity of the brilliant red stones that decorate the centrepiece necklace,” Felicity went on, “but there are also emeralds, sapphires and around a thousand carats worth of diamonds. The collection was reputedly put together by an Indian prince in the 17th century to frame the infinite beauty of his favourite mistress.”
“They say that the mistress had her throat cut and the stones were nicked by a servant who was bewitched by the blood red colour of the rubies,” Sid threw in with a certain bloodthirsty relish. “Some people reckon they’re cursed. They’ve changed hands several times over the centuries and nearly all the owners have come to a sticky end.”
“And you’ve come to the Riviera to steal them?” said Michael.
Sid nodded cheerfully.
“I’m not sure I’d particularly want any jewellery that was cursed,” I said thoughtfully.
“Well, to be honest, it’s not really the jewels themselves that we’re after,” admitted Sid. “They’re really just a means to an end.”
“And what end is that?” asked Michael.
Felicity leaned forward and dropped her voice to a breathless whisper as though imparting a great secret. “Word has gone round that anyone who succeeds in stealing the Dirwali rubies from the Hotel Majestic will be invited to join the Promethean Circle.”
“Join the what circle?” I repeated with a puzzled frown.
“Oh now, this is really too much!” exclaimed Felicity. “You can’t possibly be ignorant of the Promethean Circle. The club is legendary throughout the landscape!”
Michael and I were obliged by the means of another apologetic shrug to confess that this was indeed something else that had passed us by.
“It’s a sort of fancy club for famous thieves,” explained Sid helpfully. “Quite a high class, brandy-and-cigars, kind of affair.”
“The Promethean Circle is one of the most exclusive organisations in the landscape,” Felicity imperiously corrected him. “All the very best names in fictional crime belong – Flambeau, Raffles, Arsene Lupin…”
“And you fancied joining this what-do-you-call-it circle, did you?” I clarified.
“The Promethean Circle,” repeated Felicity haughtily. “Named after Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the Greek Gods. I suppose now you’re going to tell me you’ve never heard of him either.”
“No, that one definitely rings a bell,” I replied lightly. “I’m not entirely sure he’s the very best figurehead for a club of professional thieves though. Didn’t he get caught, after all?”
“He did. And for his punishment he was chained to a rock and had his liver torn out by an eagle,” confirmed Michael. “Then it would grow back overnight just so he could repeat the experience all over again the following day.”
“Ouch,” I pointedly remarked.
“That’s not the point,” retorted Felicity sniffily. “The point is that according to the annals of classical mythology Prometheus was the very first thief. The first to display the kind of dash and daring necessary to take what he coveted and hang the consequences.”
“Good for him,” I murmured.
“Naturally only the very finest and most respected thieves can ever hope to be invited to join the Promethean Circle,” Felicity concluded defiantly.
“So I suppose it’ll be quite a tricky job to pinch these rubies then?” suggested Michael.
“Tricky don’t cover the half of it,” replied Sid with a snort. “For a start they’ve plonked them right in the middle of the hotel lobby,” he said, rearranging cups, napkins and coffee pots on the table in order to illustrate his words with a rudimentary plan of the place, “so, not only are they guarded at all times by two members of the hotel security staff, but any move has to be made right before the eyes of the concierge, the reception desk and any guests that happen to be passing through. And then we come to the cabinet itself.
“Three inch-thick reinforced glass walls stretching floor to ceiling all round, permanently sealed with no entrance and, the real icing on the cake, a specially-designed pressurised floor. You set one foot inside that glass and every alarm from here to the Italian border starts singing a very loud tune.”
“Sounds like quite a challenge,” murmured Michael sympathetically.
“And of course since word has got around about the Promethean Circle there’s the added complication of knowing that there are others after the same prize,” added Felicity.
“Is there much competition?” asked Michael.
“Oh yeah,” Sid breezily replied. “Of course they don’t like to advertise their presence but I’ve had word one way or another that just about every big name in thievery has rolled up on the Riviera over the last few days – Benny the Claw, Bruno & Lang, La Gazza, Moriarty…”
“Moriarty?” I repeated excitedly. “You don’t mean Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis is here on the Riviera?”
“Nah, not Moriarty – Morrie and Artie,” corrected Sid with a chuckle. “The Minkel Twins.”
“Oh,” I said with evident disappointment.
“Actually those two are the only ones not concerning themselves with a low profile,” Sid went on. “In fact they’re sitting at that café just across the road right now. I’ll swear they’ve been following us around ever since we got here.”
I turned in the direction indicated by Sid and found myself staring at two gangly young lads who couldn’t have been more than about seventeen seated at a nearby café table. One was busy building a tower out of sugar cubes while the other leaned back in his chair, gazing quite brazenly at our table. He responded to my curious stare with a nonchalant grin.
“Are you trying to tell me that those two are professional thieves?” I incredulously demanded, turning back to Sid. “They look about twelve!”
“They may be young but they’re no innocents. They took over their father’s gang when he was sent down last year and they’ve been mixing it with the big boys ever since.” Sid sighed. “Wherever you look we certainly ain’t short of competition. I guess we should at least be grateful that Dietmar the Rat took himself out of the running with that tumble off the casino roof last night.”
“Just a minute. The man who fell from the casino roof – are you saying he was after these jewels too?” said Michael in surprise.
“So you heard about that at least,” Felicity dryly noted.
“Heard about it? He nearly landed right on top of us!” I exclaimed.
“He was here for the sparklers alright,” confirmed Sid. “But what I can’t quite figure out is what he was doing up on that roof.”
“All part of the job surely,” suggested Felicity with a light shrug. “The casino does stand right next to the Hotel Majestic.”
“But there’s no clear line of sight from the roof down into the lobby – any pro could see that in an instant,” countered Sid thoughtfully. “Anyway, Dietmar was always a tunnel boy. He never did roofs, he couldn’t stand heights.”
“Well, he’s out of the running now anyway so I don’t see any point in worrying over it,” Felicity dismissively remarked.
“So have you got your own heist plan all worked out then?” I asked with eager curiosity. “When do you make your move?”
The question met with such an uncomfortable silence that I instantly assumed I must have made a terrible breach of thieving etiquette. “Sorry, I really shouldn’t have asked that, should I?” I said quickly. “I didn’t mean to pry into any professional secrets.”
“Oh no, it’s not that…” began Sid before tailing off awkwardly.
“To your question of when we make our move the answer would seem to be never,” Felicity finally declared after a long, awkward pause. “There has been a hiccup in our plans.”
“You see, our plan calls for a four man team,” Sid endeavoured to explain, “and we suddenly find ourselves a couple of men short.”
“To put it simply, we’ve been let down rather badly,” Felicity sharply announced.
“Now, I don’t think you can blame Bob and Ruth entirely,” protested Sid.
“I’m afraid this is what comes of relying on the riff-raff of the criminal world,” Felicity haughtily told Michael and me, ignoring Sid’s intervention.
“Aww, that’s not quite fair,” insisted Sid with a pained expression. “They’re highly-respected professionals. They were just trying to get their due.”
“I made them a perfectly reasonable offer,” insisted Felicity. “Just because I was not prepared to be held to ransom…”
“There’s always a bit of give and take when it comes to dividing up the loot,” sighed Sid with the air of a man reluctantly rehashing a well-worn argument. “If you’d just left the negotiations to me…”
“So it’s all my fault now, is it?” Felicity demanded abruptly.
“Now I didn’t say that,” Sid vainly protested. “But maybe if you hadn’t referred to them as the hired help…”
“Well, perhaps if you backed me up for once!” complained Felicity sharply. “But then you’ve never supported my ambitions for this enterprise, have you Sidney Hitchens? Here am I, trying to add a little class to what we do when you’d be just as happy to go on coshing delivery drivers over the head for a living!”
“Ah now Fliss, that ain’t fair!” objected Sid. “Didn’t I agree to drop everything for these rubies? Haven’t I spent weeks with you going over every angle?”
“Well, I’m sorry it’s all turned out to be such a waste of time!” declared Felicity, rising indignantly to her feet. “Perhaps you can roll over an ice cream truck while you’re here to make up for the inconvenience!”
“Hey now Fliss…” began Sid, reaching out towards her.
But it was too late, Felicity was not to be consoled. Snatching her hand resentfully out of reach she turned and stalked off without another word. The three of us could only sit and watch in bemused silence as she flounced off down the boulevard. Only when she had finally vanished from sight behind a screen of palm trees did Sid turn to us with a sheepish grin.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “You shouldn’t mind Fliss. She’s a bit high strung, she doesn’t always mean what she says.”
Michael and I both erupted into a flurry of murmured words and awkward gestures vainly intended to convey that we had barely noticed, let alone been embarrassed by, the little contretemps that had just taken place at our table.
“It’s all been a bit upsetting for her, you see, having to kick the detective agency into touch,” Sid went on. “I think the heist game’s a better fit for her all round but it can be a bit rough at times and she sees it as sort of a step down. That’s why I really wanted to land her this spot on the Promethean Circle. It’s not really my scene but Fliss is pretty big on that sort of thing.”
“Couldn’t you re-work your plan and find a way to pinch the jewels without your associates?” Michael suggested sympathetically.
Sid shook his head sorrowfully. “No go I’m afraid. We’ve been over it every which way. It’s a four man job or it can’t be done.”
There was a very long, very pregnant pause.
“I suppose this room-hunting gig of yours is keeping you fairly busy right now,” Sid finally remarked with a studied lightness of tone.
“Very busy,” I hastily confirmed.
Michael looked uncomfortably down at his coffee cup for a few moments before adding, “Well yes, it does rather keep our hands full I’m afraid.”
“Hmmm,” said Sid.
Another long heavy silence seemed to roll out to the horizon and back.
“Well, I suppose I’d better let you get on with it then,” Sid finally acknowledged. He rose to his feet and distractedly threw a few notes down onto the table to pay for breakfast. “Maybe we’ll run into each other again before too long.”
“Maybe,” I casually replied, studiously avoiding his eye.
“Perhaps,” said Michael with an apologetic smile.
Sid hovered uncertainly for a moment or two and then finally turned and walked away.
“Phew! That was awkward,” exclaimed Michael as soon as he was out of earshot. “For one terrible moment I thought he was going to ask us to be his accomplices!”
I continued to watch Sid’s retreating figure, noting with a touch of anxiety how it seemed to gradually pick up speed and a sense of purpose as it disappeared along the boulevard.
“I wouldn’t speak too soon, if I were you,” I told Michael as Sid finally vanished from sight. “Hurry up and finish your breakfast. I think we’d better find this damn room and get the hell out of the Riviera before we end up in the middle of a jewel heist!”
But of course it was already too late. After hurriedly finishing our coffee and croissants Michael and I spent the morning diligently working our way down the boulevard, checking every villa, shop and café for signs of an extra room. When the mid afternoon sun became unbearable we returned to our modest little hotel by the harbour for a swift refuelling stop only to find Sid lounging casually on a sofa in the lobby, waiting for us. He jumped up excitedly as soon as he saw us.
“Guess what?” he announced before we could utter a word. “I found your hidden room for you! It’s in an apartment over the oyster bar, next to the Café Meridian. I was just having a bit of a poke around when I came across this door there.”
“That’s great!” I told him through gritted teeth, inwardly cursing the fact that we had clearly started our own search at the wrong end of the boulevard.
“You’ll want to check it with your little gadget but I’m pretty sure you’ll find it’s exactly what you’ve been looking for,” said Sid confidently.
“Thanks, we’ll take a look right after lunch,” said Michael.
There was an awkward pause.
“Well, it’s been very kind of you to help out,” I began, aiming for a brisk, our-business-here-is-concluded tone.
“Oh, it’s nothing really,” Sid cheerfully replied. “Only… if you really want to show your gratitude I was thinking maybe you could do me a favour in return. You might remember how I said Fliss and I are a couple of bodies short for this job we’ve got on…”
“Look, we’d like to help you, really we would,” I hastily cut in, “but once our business here is sorted we really have to get a move on. We’ve still got a whole load more rooms scattered across the landscape to track down…”
“But you could spare us just a couple of days, couldn’t you?” pleaded Sid, gazing at the pair of us with an irresistibly hangdog expression. “It’ll be just like the old Copacabana days. We made a good team back then, didn’t we?”
“But that was just a bit of casual detective work,” Michael pointed out. “Getting involved in a full scale heist is a different matter altogether.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not expecting you to crack any safes or plug any guards,” Sid cheerfully replied. “Your roles are really quite simple. And we’d be willing to offer you a decent cut of the take. You could do very well out of this.”
“Supposing we got caught,” I protested. “Who would rescue Sturridge if we got sent to prison?”
“Oh, we won’t get caught,” Sid breezily insisted. “This plan is an absolute beauty.”
“Well you would say that, wouldn’t you?” I muttered.
“Listen, why don’t you judge for yourselves?” Sid offered with irritating fair-mindedness. “Let me lay the whole plan out to you over a drink right now. If you can point out any part of it that might land us in the jug then, fair enough, we call it off, go our separate ways and no offence taken… But if you see that it’s sound, that there’s absolutely nothing to worry about… Well, then you agree to lend us your services for a couple of days in exchange for my having found your room for you.” Sid paused and regarded us with an expectant grin. “Now I can’t say fairer than that, can I?”
Michael and I being reluctantly obliged to concede that Sid really couldn’t say fairer than that, we all retired to the hotel bar for a bite of lunch and to hear Sid outline his plan for stealing the Dirwali rubies from their seemingly impregnable location in the Hotel Majestic.
“So, what do you think?” asked Sid half an hour later, regarding us with an air of confident expectation.
“Well…” said Michael.
“Erm…” I said.
“I told you she was a beauty,” said Sid proudly.
The trouble was that after considering it from every angle I had to agree. I was sure that there had to be a flaw in there somewhere – surely no plan was ever absolutely fool-proof – but I was buggered if I could locate it. Sid and Felicity really did seem to have thought of everything.
“Are you certain the plans of the hotel that you’ve got are accurate?” Michael eventually asked in a desperate attempt to find a hole.
“Copied directly from the architect’s blueprints,” Sid confidently asserted.
“What about paying for the rooms and all the equipment you’ll need?” I suggested, grasping at straws. “This all sounds rather expensive to put into action.”
“Don’t worry, we knocked off a small provincial bank on the way over to finance the job,” Sid explained with a grin. “You’ve got to speculate to accumulate, ain’t you?”
I nodded glumly.
“So, if there are no more objections, can I take it you’re in?” asked Sid expectantly.
I shared one last despairing glance with Michael but there didn’t seem to be any way out. I met Sid’s beaming grin with a reluctant shrug and sighed, “It looks like we’re in.”
To be continued…