The next day – heist day itself – had been scheduled to begin with another room change for Felicity. The plan called for her to decide overnight that the colour scheme in her new suite was too vibrant and insist upon being moved to a more soothingly-decorated set of rooms. But when she called down to the reception desk first thing in the morning to make her demand she was notified that the manager was currently unavailable. So too it seemed were the deputy manager, the concierge and the head housekeeper. The best that the receptionist could do was to make a note of her complaint and promise to send somebody up just as soon as they were available.
Twenty minutes went by without anything happening. Felicity called down again only to be fobbed off with the same story. When a third call twenty minutes after that still failed to produce any sign of the hotel management Felicity decided that action needed to be taken. She claimed it was beneath the dignity of her character to go chasing around after hotel staff and so I was despatched instead to try and find out what was going on.
From the moment the lift doors pinged open on the ground floor I had a strange sense of something not quite right. There was a hint of strain in the polite smile with which the receptionist greeted me but these people are trained to be discreet to the point of inscrutability. She was terribly sorry, she politely explained, but a minor incident had occurred which currently required the full attention of the hotel management. She had made a note of Madame Fortescue’s request, she repeatedly insisted, and would send somebody up just as soon as they were available. And no amount of wheedling, threatening or bribery would draw her from this script.
Figuring that Felicity would not be impressed if this was the full extent of the intelligence I was able to take back to Room 418 I decided to poke around a bit before heading back upstairs. There was nothing untoward in the morning room or the bar but upon entering the dining room I was surprised to find that the large glass doors at the rear of the room, which normally stood open, remained firmly closed. What was more, the terrace beyond, which at that time of day would usually be dotted with guests breakfasting al fresco, appeared to be entirely empty. Here, I sensed, was the key to the mystery.
Blocked by the closed doors from investigating further in that direction, I retreated back through the lobby and tried a flanking movement around the side of the hotel but my progress was halted on the edge of the empty terrace by a beefy security guard. “Sorry Miss but access to the rear of the hotel is currently restricted,” he said, holding up a large sun-tanned hand. “The swimming pools are being cleaned.”
The mention of the swimming pools sent a tingle of alarm running down my spine as I immediately thought of Sid and Michael’s underground activities. Gazing over the guard’s shoulder I could just make out several figures milling about beyond the end of the terrace between the first pool and the bathing cabins, none of whom seemed to be either dressed or equipped for the business of cleaning. My heart lurched a little further when I recognised the hotel manager himself amongst them.
“Does the hotel manager usually take personal charge of the pool cleaning?” I asked the guard in as casual a manner as I could muster.
The guard glanced briefly behind him to check what exactly I might have seen. “The manager takes an interest in everything that goes on in his hotel,” he replied, turning back with a light shrug.
It was not an especially convincing explanation and it rang even hollower when I caught a flash of uniform amongst the crowd gathered by the swimming pool. If the hotel manager might just about conceivably interest himself in the business of pool cleaning I was pretty sure the police would not. Yet there were clearly officers of the law in the middle of whatever it was that was going on.
By now the tingle of alarm had developed into something approaching a full electric shock. I was sure that the presence of the police could only mean that Sid and Michael had been caught in the act. Had they already been arrested and carted off to prison? At least they weren’t in possession of the rubies yet so perhaps there was still time to concoct some plausible excuse for our business in the bathing cabin. Maybe with a good enough lawyer they could cut some kind of a plea deal? Was there even such an offence as unlawful construction of a tunnel?
The sound of the guard’s voice snapped me out of my increasingly fevered speculation. “The bathing area should be open again around noon,” he announced. “Maybe you’d like to come back then.”
“Right, yes, thank-you,” I spluttered in reply. And seeing that there wasn’t much to be gained by hanging around I turned and left.
My first thought was to dash straight upstairs to update Felicity but at the last minute I turned away from the lifts and returned to the dining room in search of one last view of the poolside shenanigans. I initially headed towards the glass doors, searching for a fresh angle on the commotion, but then I spotted Eduardo darting between tables in his waiter’s uniform and sensed a better source of information. I waited until he had finished pouring coffee for an elderly couple before waylaying him by a table bearing an extravagant display of fresh fruit.
“Ciao Bella!” Eduardo exclaimed as I grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him behind a cascade of citrus fruits.
“What’s going on by the swimming pools this morning?” I immediately demanded, having no time for the usual flirtatious pleasantries.
A shadow immediately fell over his handsome face. “The pools? Oh just some cleaning I think. Nothing very interesting,” he replied unconvincingly.
“Don’t give me that!” I retorted. “What are policeman doing over there? Something’s going on, isn’t it?”
Eduardo shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. “Don’t ask me about this mia carina,” he implored. “I am forbidden from speaking about it to any of the guests.”
“Oh, come on Eduardo, I’m not just any old guest, am I? You can tell me. I won’t breathe a word.”
Eduardo hesitated a moment longer before drawing me a little further back behind the protective cover of an extra-large pineapple for added discretion. “A young woman was found drowned in the freshwater pool first thing this morning,” he told me in a low voice.
“Drowned!” I exclaimed.
“Shh, yes. She was floating face down, fully dressed.”
“Who is she?” I asked.
Eduardo shrugged. “I do not know. But the hotel manager is very unhappy about this. Yesterday, there were frozen men in the refrigerator, today there is a dead woman in the pool. He is afraid that if word of these accidents gets out then people will think that this is not a good place to enjoy their holidays.”
“He might have a point there,” I murmured. “They’re sure this was an accident, are they?”
“What else could it be?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied. “They haven’t found anything else, er, unusual round by the swimming pools?”
Eduardo shook his head with a puzzled air. “No. What do you mean? Are drowned women not enough for you?”
“Yeah, of course. I was just…”
There was a moment of thoughtful silence before Eduardo’s face brightened into a smile. “Hey, my shift finishes at two again today. Why don’t we take another ride along the coast road? I know the perfect little spot for a picnic, even more secluded than the last…”
“I’m sorry Eduardo, I really wish I could,” I said with genuine regret. “But I think I’m going to be pretty busy all day today.”
“That is a very great shame,” Eduardo solemnly declared. “You will let me know if you change your mind.”
“And you will remember, not a word to anyone about the lady in the swimming pool,” he added urgently. “I cannot afford to lose this job.”
“No, of course,” I replied. “I promise you I won’t tell a soul.” And with a reassuring squeeze of his hand I left Eduardo to return to his duties while I hurried off to tell Felicity everything I knew.
In my eagerness to pass on the news I chose not to wait for the lift but headed up the rear staircase instead. I was just turning the corner on the first floor landing when somebody jumped out of the shadows, startling me so much that I nearly toppled right back down the stairs.
“Hey there Sweets! How’s tricks?” drawled Morrie Minkel with a lazy grin.
“Jesus H Christ! I wish you wouldn’t bloody do that!”
“Do what?” asked Morrie, a picture of innocence.
“Jump out at people like that,” I snapped, the fractiousness of my tone perhaps slightly enhanced by a sense of embarrassment at having been so easily spooked. “And don’t call me Sweets.”
“Sorry Babes. We didn’t mean to startle you, did we Art?”
I was at least a little more prepared for the face of the second Minkel twin suddenly looming over the bannister above me and so managed to keep my cool somewhat better. I gave him a polite nod, to which he responded with a sullen glare. I noticed that he now appeared to have inked on a pair of sideburns to go with his pencil moustache.
“I reckon I can’t blame you for being a bit jumpy this morning,” said Morrie casually. “I’m guessing you just found out about the body in the swimming pool.”
“How do you know about that?” I demanded, giving him a suspicious glare.
“We happened to be up and about bright and early this morning, didn’t we Art?” Art responded with one of his indifferent shrugs. “Well, to be perfectly honest,” Morrie casually continued, “it would be more accurate to say that we were still up from the night before.” He leaned back against the wall and actually went so far as to give me a wink. “I gotta confess me and my brother are a little on the wild side but that don’t mean that we couldn’t be tamed by the right sort of woman.”
“Oh dear Lord,” I muttered.
“So, yeah, there we were, strolling along, minding our business, when we spot something in the pool,” Morrie breezily continued. “I have to say it gave us a bit of a shock when we got a little closer and realised that the stiff was La Gazza.”
“La Who-za?” I repeated, confused.
“La Gazza,” repeated Morrie. “You must know La Gazza…”
I gazed at him blankly.
“Aka The Magpie…? Aka the Contessa Francesca della Scipione, one of the finest jewel thieves in Europe…? Everyone in the business knows La Gazza, ain’t that right Art?”
Art presented a look of weary indifference.
“You’re saying that the drowned woman was a jewel thief too?” I said in surprise. “That means she was probably here for the rubies as well,” I mused to myself.
“I doubt she was here just to top up her tan,” agreed Morrie.
My brow wrinkled thoughtfully whilst I took a moment to process this piece of information. There had been a lot to take in already that morning and we’d barely made it past breakfast.
“So, I’m sorry if I made you jump,” Morrie went on, “but you gotta know that if jewel thieves are getting murdered me and Art are bound to come check on our two favourite ladies, ain’t that right Art?”
I looked up at Morrie with a frown. “Who said this woman was murdered?” I demanded. “I thought the hotel were treating her death as an accident.”
“Yeah well, they’re bound to say that, ain’t they?” replied Morrie. “Nobody’s gonna want to take a vacation at a hotel where there’s a serial killer on the guest list.”
“A serial killer?”
“Yeah, sure. First it was Dietmar the Rat, then Bruno and Lang and now La Gazza. I’d say it’s pretty obvious that somebody is trying to narrow down the competition for those rubies, wouldn’t you?”
I looked at Morrie uncertainly. When he put it like that there was an undoubted logic to the argument. “There’s no proof that anyone’s been murdered,” I countered, as much in an effort to convince myself as anyone else. “All those deaths could easily have been accidents.”
“Quite a coincidence if they are,” returned Morrie lightly. “I mean, sure, maybe Dietmar the Rat’s just about useless enough to fling himself off a roof by accident… and, who knows, maybe Bruno and Lang were just really unlucky… But La Gazza? She’s one of the very best. She doesn’t have accidents and she doesn’t make mistakes. If La Gazza drops out of the running for the Dirwali rubies then it’s cos someone chose to take her out. Someone who really means business.”
There was another thoughtful pause whilst I tried, and failed, to come up with a flaw in Morrie’s reasoning.
“But hey, there’s no need to look so worried Babes,” Morrie cheerfully announced. “There’s no way me and Art’d let anything happen to our two favourite ladies.” He leaned forward and tried on that apprentice leer of his. “Any time you’re in need of some close protection you know who to call.”
I glared at him for a moment, undecided as to whether to slap him or burst out laughing. In the end I did neither. There’d been a lot of information acquired this morning that required careful consideration and I figured I could do this much better by discussing it with an actual grown-up.
“I thank you for your concern but I’ve got things to be getting on with,” I told the Minkel twins, turning aside to continue on up the stairs. “So, if you don’t mind…”
Morrie hesitated just a moment before stepping reluctantly aside.
“Sure thing Toots. You want to play it cool, that’s fine by me,” he drawled as I headed on up. “But don’t you worry about a thing cos whatever happens, the Minkel boys are here to keep an eye out for you!”
But by this time I was barely listening to him. There was a lot running through my mind as I hurried on up the stairs, not least the fact that I was beginning to see why some people might think that these Dirwali rubies were cursed.
Back in Room 418 Felicity listened to my long and detailed account of everything that I had discovered whilst I had been downstairs with an expression of studied concentration. When I had finished there was a long pause before she finally declared, “In the circumstances I don’t think I’ll persist in speaking to the hotel manager. We don’t really need the extra room change – three should prove enough for the job in hand.”
I stared at her for a moment, wondering if perhaps she hadn’t quite taken in all that I had told her. “But about the swimming pools,” I said. “If the police are poking around hadn’t we better check up on Sid and Michael?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” replied Felicity, adopting an unexpectedly breezy attitude to the whole matter. “Sidney knows how to keep his head down and the hotel management will be too anxious to keep news of the dead woman under wraps to kick up too much of a fuss.”
“Yes but about the dead woman…” I began.
“What about her?”
“Well, aren’t you just a little bit concerned that somebody appears to be going around knocking off jewel thieves just as we’re putting the final touches to our multi-million pound heist?”
Felicity gave me a mildly exasperated look. “Nobody is ‘knocking off’ anyone, as you so picturesquely put it. I can’t believe you are allowing yourself to be spooked by the words of Capone Jnr and his brother.”
“I’m not, it’s just that…”
“This is a dangerous business. Accidents do occur.”
“Rather a lot of accidents in this case though, isn’t it?”
Felicity flicked away the remark with a casual gesture.
“Did you know this ‘La Gazza’?” I asked, determined to pursue the issue.
“I knew of her,” replied Felicity airily. “In our business it is important to keep abreast of the competition.”
“What was she like? As a jewel thief, I mean. Was she any good?”
“I suppose you could say she has pulled off one or two rather spectacular coups in the last year or so,” Felicity said dismissively. “Though of course she’s helped a great deal by her aristocratic connections. It’s much easier to help yourself to the cream of society’s jewels when the cream of society are obliging enough to invite you to their villas for a weekend stay.”
“So at the very least she ought to know her way around a swimming pool,” I remarked pointedly.
“Really Natasha, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” Felicity insisted. “The important thing is that we maintain focus on our own plans. One must never allow oneself to become distracted by what other thieves are doing.”
“Even if what the other thieves are doing is getting themselves murdered?”
Felicity gave me a sour look.
“Tell me we’re at least going to go down and check up on the bathing cabin as soon as they open up access to the pools,” I persisted.
Felicity considered this for a moment. “I’ll pop along at lunchtime just to make sure everything is on schedule,” she finally declared. “I know how to do these things discreetly.”
“You have work of your own this afternoon, remember?” Felicity cut me off before I could even begin to protest. She opened the top drawer of her dressing table and drew out a thick brown envelope. “You need to make your way along to the harbour to deliver this to Captain Dupree of the Elise. And make sure you run through all the details of tonight’s rendezvous with him while you’re about it. It’s no good the heist running like clockwork only for us to hit a snag in the getaway.”
I reluctantly took the envelope from her, vainly wishing that I could think of a valid reason why our roles should be reversed.
“Why don’t you get yourself some lunch in town while you’re at it,” Felicity added. “I’m sure the sea air will do wonders for your nerves.”
I responded to her rather patronising smile with a snarky grimace.
Felicity appeared not to notice. “After all, it’s quite natural for you to get the jitters – this is your first robbery,” she blithely continued. “And any heist that comes with a prize as elusive as membership of the Promethean Circle attached is bound to be quite daunting for an amateur. But just so long as you follow the lead of us professionals you can’t go wrong.”
At which point I shoved the envelope in my pocket and turned to leave before the temptation to tell Felicity precisely where she could stick her Promethean Circle overwhelmed me.
To be continued…