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by Y. L. Wigman
A fortune in diamonds stolen in Brussels.
Across the globe, a copper-haired copper hunts a robber.
And a charismatic jeweler has ambitions of her own—victim or thief?
Investigating officer Constable Taite O’Dath of the Australian Federal Police has Interpol impatient for an arrest in the Brussels heist. Is the co-owner of the missing diamonds, magnetic Sabine Zaffiro, mixed up in an international insurance fraud? As damning evidence mounts in Europe, the Zaffiros jewelry franchise is increasingly implicated.
More precious than mere diamonds, Sabine means to steal Taite’s usually intractable heart. But emerging family secrets threaten to foul the jeweler’s dreams and the police officer’s future. In the hunt for a perversely vicious thief, can Taite salvage the truth and a latent love?
In the glare of a black Mercedes Vito van’s headlights at Brussels International Airport, six men wearing police uniforms and camouflage masks stood tensed. Leading them, Paulo Peccati sweated profusely as he cut through the mesh security fence between two construction sites. Aircraft engine fumes fouled June’s tepid evening air. Chunky and strong for his size, Paulo was forced to breathe shallowly through an open mouth as he worked the bolt cutters up the wire, cursing that he hadn’t brought a more heavy-duty tool.
Once he severed the final link, the men dragged back the fence and swarmed through the opening. Lights flashing, the van and a dark Audi A8 followed through and drove fifty yards across the tarmac to the Helvetic Airways aircraft waiting to leave for Zurich. The plane had just received its last delivery of cargo. Only minutes before, the Bogaert’s Diamond and Jewelry Services truck from Antwerp had dropped off three cases, each containing forty packages of diamonds worth a collective fifty million American dollars.
Paulo sprinted toward the pilot and copilot, who were bowed over a clipboard, engrossed in their preflight safety check. With gloved hands, he shoved a submachine gun in their startled faces and they dropped everything with a clatter, hands held high. Another three armed robbers raced beneath the plane, disarmed two security guards and prodded them out into the open where they joined Paulo with the pilots.
Trigger finger twitching, Paulo listened beyond the pounding of his own blood, scanning for signs of reaction from the terminal. None forthcoming, he signaled to the van. Two waiting robbers leaped out and scampered up the belt loader into the belly of the plane.
Moments later, they reappeared at the door of the luggage section brandishing the three diamond-filled cases. Paulo waved them back to the van, grinning like a madman behind his mask. With the gun, he jabbed the pilots and pointed to the tarmac. The pilots dropped flat, as did the security guards. Paulo stood over them while his team raced back to the vehicles. Only then did he back away and turn to sprint like a starving cheetah, adrenalin surging. He jumped into the Audi and it took off toward the gaping fence, closely followed by the van, and disappeared into the night.
Not a word had been spoken. Not a single bullet had been fired.
Five minutes had passed.
* * *
Deep beneath the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation building in the center of the city, Kreyna Katz made herself comfortable in the remote surveillance room. Athletic in build, she quickly adjusted the leather recliner and draped the wires from the monitoring electrodes at her wrists out of the way. In her lap rested a pad and pen, should she want to describe or draw what she was about to witness.
As a highly trained specialist remote viewer for ASIO, she’d been summoned by the director of the Non-Physical Surveillance Team, Dr. Pankaj Corea. He’d once been her training officer and knew his team well, their varying skills and proficiencies. Now he decided who would fulfill each assignment. When shifting consciousness from one place in the world to another at will, no one was better than Kreyna.
She said, “Where am I going and what am I looking for?”
Pankaj peered over the monitor and smoothed down his lush black moustache. “Only four companies owned the stolen Brussels diamonds: two Italian, one Monacan and one Australian. For now, Interpol suspects collective insurance fraud, but there is little evidence, without which Italian authorities have no justification to enter and search properties. You’re looking for anything to suggest it was a planned theft or collusion. The diamonds themselves, perhaps?”
“Yup, right—little hope of that. Where to?”
“The ancestral home of the Capresi family. Villa Capresi on Via Sestese in Florence, Italy. Look for a home office. Coordinates are forty-three, seventy-eight north, eleven twenty-five east. Take your time and good luck. Go now!”
Immediately, Kreyna slowed and dropped her breathing to her navel. She gathered the power in her root energy vortex and sent it spiraling vertically through each chakra in her body: sacral, solar plexus, heart, gathering speed at her throat until it thrummed behind her third eye. Her heart rate plummeted when her eyes rolled back in her head and she tore loose, shifting ten thousand miles at the speed of thought.
Breaking dawn on the Via Sestese. The villa was a fifteenth century three-story building fronted by a portico with an arch of imposing yellow brickwork over the front door. Two sets of stairs rose from opposing sides to the portico. Beneath it was a smaller arch over an opening that could lead to a central courtyard. Kreyna drifted through and found a door to what seemed to be a kitchen, quaintly original, yet functional. Other rooms led off it: the olive oil room and a cool room, best guess? She moved upstairs and peered in doorways as she passed: cotto tile floors with well-worn woven rugs, rendered walls, wooden beam ceilings, tapestries and paintings, wrought-iron work and wooden furniture. She entered a room with a huge fireplace, low seating and an antique wooden dresser covered in framed family photos and a pair of ornate candlesticks.
Between arched windows with internal shutters, a door led to a frescoed loggia for entertaining. Outside, the day was growing lighter fast. Nestled in a wicker basket near the door, a sable Italian greyhound raised its fine-boned skull and turned doe eyes toward Kreyna. She raised a finger to her lips and its moist black nose twitched.
From below, an elderly woman’s voice quavered, “Donatello? Venire qui!” The dog hopped out of the basket, yawned and stretched gracefully through his front paws, rump in the air. He cast one last look at Kreyna and disappeared down the stairs.
On the other side of the room was a magnificent dark timber desk with a modern return-style table that supported a personal computer and printer. Document trays, writing equipment and papers were spread neatly on the desk. Family photos and knickknacks personalized its surface. Kreyna examined the loose papers arranged on a leather blotter in the center—in thought form, she could see, hear and smell, but not touch. They were bills, lists, photocopies of a map and aerial photos of an airport hand labeled “Brussels.” One list held amounts in euros, plus names, and she concentrated to memorize them. Fasolato, Peccati, Zaffiro. It wasn’t much, but she had to go back.
A split-second journey through a yawning tunnel of time and Kreyna snatched up the pen in her lap. Once she’d written the names and figures, she rested, eyes closed while Pankaj disconnected her.
He asked, “Anything of use?”
“Nothing you didn’t know, I suspect. Sorry.” She went to get up, but he put up a hand.
“Slowly, no sudden moves.” He rocked his head from side to side and picked up the pad. “Show me what you’ve got. Ah, a photo of Brussels Airport? Incriminating, but not evidence, yet still encouraging. And names we know. Well done, Kreyna.” He supported her when she slid off the chair and stood tentatively. “You know the drill. Go home and rest for the remainder of the day. I need you in good shape. And don’t leave town.”
* * *
Sabine Zaffiro was close to panic. One hand clamped to her mouth, she failed to notice people jostling her slightly hunched form as she stood near the exit of the Zurich Kloten Airport freight office. It was early morning and the office was a hive of activity.
Their diamonds were gone. Stolen in Brussels. How exactly, right now she neither knew nor cared. Nearly eight million dollars worth of Zaffiro-owned diamonds, bound for a Swiss watchmaker. They were supposed to be set into custom-made watches for sale in her family’s Australia-wide jewelry stores.
Shock mingled with dread. The loss to her father’s company could be severe—they were counting on those sales. And she would have to go back to Canberra having personally failed to collect and deliver the diamonds. The venom meted out by her stepmother, Claudia, and stepbrother, Aldo, would be considerable. Even though the situation wasn’t Sabine’s fault, it would still be her mistake.
From behind, someone thudded into her shoulder and swore as a mobile phone clattered across the tiled floor. A young man bent down and picked it up. He straightened, ready to give her an earful, but stood with an open mouth full of splayed teeth, his scowling monobrow arched.
“Hoi du heisse Chäfer. Hettsch Luscht uf en Drink und echli zschnörre?” He reached to grab her wrist.
“Don’t touch me!” Sabine threw her hands high, sidestepped him and headed for the exit door.
“Hei wart…bliib da…Chum zrugg!”
She shoved the door behind her, back in his face.
Her knowledge of Swiss German was zero, but she could guess what he’d said. Mostly, Sabine was inured to being harassed as it happened so frequently, she no longer bothered to speak to the endless men intrigued by her Latin looks. She’d been fending them off since her early teens. Now twenty-nine, she found the attention merely annoying, with the occasional exception.
Crossing the car park, she pulled a pair of sunglasses off her almost-black, shoulder-length hair and rammed them on. “Neanderthal! Just because a woman doesn’t faint in your presence doesn’t mean she’s a lesbian. Coincidentally, you’re correct.” Sabine glanced around, for she rarely mentioned that fact out loud.
The rented dark green Alfa Romeo promised some refuge, and she slipped into the black leather driver’s seat. What should she do next? Stick to her schedule or run straight home with her tail between her legs? She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. Her hands were large enough to carry substantial jewelry, and on each little finger she wore a gold ring with a stone: on the left, a fiery black opal from Coober Pedy in outback South Australia. On the right was Sabine’s favorite, a pigeon blood ruby from the Mogok Valley in Myanmar, its purplish-red hue throbbing with lusty life.
She knew she should catch the next flight back to Australia. However, she wasn’t booked to fly from Rome for another three days and urgently needed to see her half sister, Eliane, now living in Florence. Eliane was expecting her tomorrow, but she wouldn’t mind an early arrival. Sabine dug in her handbag for her mobile phone and sent a text to her father, Filippo Zaffiro, telling him the diamonds were missing and to watch the TV news for the full story. A brief text to Eliane said she was on her way.
Dread dragged at her insides. Those diamonds were crucial to the company’s Christmas season campaign and resulting income. The coming deal with the Twincrest diamond mine in Western Australia depended on solid returns to be affordable. Bad timing, really bad.
Sabine gunned the Alfa’s engine and started back to the Park Inn hotel to pack her bags and sign out. She would drop in to the Rado Watch Company main office on the way. They were expecting the diamonds and she would have to explain what had happened. Salvaging the dregs of the day, she could at least try to enjoy the scenery during the six-hour drive across the Alps to Italy.
* * *
Constable Taite O’Dath’s polished R.M.Williams boots crunched into frosty grass, her breath a lingering cloud in the early morning air. It was well below freezing in the quiet depths of the semi-rural suburb on the outskirts of Australia’s bush capital. She had driven through soupy fog that had given way to crystal-blue sky and a painfully bright midwinter sun. Tracking her from above, two monochrome magpies huddled on a naked claret ash branch, fresh out of early worms.
Innately cautious, Taite hoped the interview would be straightforward, but her subject had an intimidating reputation for grasping the upper hand. While the case didn’t obviously warrant consulting someone of this woman’s caliber, Taite had been directed to do exactly that. She would be winging it—scary but exhilarating.
With the too-new briefcase parked between her trouser-clad ankles, she chafed pale hands together to get back some circulation. For a moment, she closed her electric-blue eyes and took a slow breath to calmly focus and knocked solidly on the door of the contemporary home.
A barrage of curt barks and muffled growls came from behind the paneled door. Taite took a step back and instinctively touched the police-issue Glock 22 at her belt. She was still poised for action when the door opened. A trim, fortyish woman restrained a hefty, curly-coated black dog and beckoned her inside.
“Come in, Constable. I’m sorry. Wodan is a Bouvier des Flandres, a would-be Belgian police dog who takes his duties very seriously. He’ll settle down soon. It’s this way to my office.”
Taite stepped inside and stood back. “After you, Ms. Katz.” Her host seemed approachable yet businesslike, which was a good start. The woman clicked her fingers and pointed down the hall. The dog obeyed, his claws rapping on the floorboards ahead of the two women. Taite lengthened her stride to keep up.
“Please call me Kreyna. And you’re Taite?” Kreyna’s wide smile was warm beneath an appraising look.
Taite nodded assent and followed her into an unpretentious office. Bookcases lined two walls. A third held a collage of pictures of unusual-looking characters, plus some framed family photos. Next to the computer desk, she found a visitor’s chair not too close to Wodan’s slung canvas bed. Ignoring the dog’s hard, challenging stare, she hung her double-breasted wool coat on the back of the chair and extracted a few pages from the briefcase.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Kreyna.” Taite offered two stapled papers to her host and sat back, tucking away errant strands of dead-straight, copper hair behind her ears. “We very much appreciate your time and the opportunity to consult with you. As I said on the phone, I’m a federal agent and part of the Australian Federal Police’s International Operations Team. The superintendent has appointed me to liaise with you in regard to the Brussels Airport diamond heist. Initially we thought it was purely a matter for Interpol, but there’s an Australian company that had cargo on the Swiss plane.”
Kreyna’s dark brown eyes read quickly, fingers of one hand twirling short, glossy black curls. “Yup, I know most of this. Dr. Corea has explained the peculiarities of the situation, specifically the lack of information.”
While Kreyna read, Taite glanced at the bookshelves and noted titles covering subjects from spiritualism to quantum physics and back to earth with gardening. She risked casting a soft-eyed glance at the dog. He raised his great woolly head and ventured a throaty rumble.
Preoccupied, Kreyna murmured, “He doesn’t mean it.”
“Yes he does.”
“Good call.” Kreyna grinned, teeth flashing. “You do understand what I do, don’t you?”
“I know you’re a remote viewer who can gather information from anywhere and everywhere.” Taite leaned forward and took the opportunity to admire this vibrant, extraordinary woman, now they were face-to-face. “The super told me you’ve saved ASIO from several embarrassing moments over enough years for them to know you’re an essential resource. And you do psychic work for the New South Wales police, assisting their Unsolved Homicide Squad with their investigations. All of which is absolutely not public knowledge.”
“What’s your personal take on that résumé, Constable?”
Taite smiled and said, “I am one of several agents and the newest on the team. But the super is aware that I have enough personal esoteric knowledge to appreciate your advanced intuitive skills, sufficient to ensure cooperation between all parties.”
“Really?” Kreyna raised eyebrows and nodded slightly. “That’s refreshing. Then we have a good foundation for working together.” She turned to read the desktop computer screen. “Further to your notes, we have scant information because the diamond thieves were so fast and efficient it beggars belief. Fifty million American worth of cut and uncut stones in five minutes.”
Taite said, “That’s an impressive paycheck.”
“Isn’t it? The only real clue is they knew exactly when the truck would load. How did they know?” Kreyna glanced across to the policewoman. “Allegedly, only airport staff and Bogaert’s employees had the intel. I’m sure Interpol will be conducting its own interviews in Belgium and Italy. We know the names of the diamonds’ co-owners: Capresi, Fasolato, Peccati and Zaffiro but not if they are connected in any way. And you’ll talk to Zaffiro’s, the Australian company?”
“I have an appointment to interview Zaffiro’s management. They lost eight million in stones, give or take.”
Kreyna’s eyes stretched wide. “Wow! Not ruinous, given the spread of their stores across Australia, but it must still hurt. Let me know what you find out.”
“Definitely, I’ll be in touch.” Taite placed her business card on the desk and secured the clasp on the briefcase. She shook her wool coat free of the chair.
“Do you have time for a coffee? Come down to the kitchen and I’ll make you a real one.” When Taite hesitated, Kreyna added, “I promise not to read your mind or whatever else it is you think I might get up to. There are rules around what I do, rules I don’t break.”
Down in the country-style kitchen, Kreyna lined up glass cups under the coffee machine spouts while Taite examined a framed photo standing on the counter. It showed a teenage girl with long, blond, curly hair holding Wodan’s leash, and a radiant Kreyna looking up at a pleasing-to-the-eye mature woman with short salt-and-pepper hair.
“You look happy. You all do,” Taite said.
Kreyna looked up from tipping froth into the cups. “That’s my daughter, Sofiya.”
“Is the woman a relative?”
“Please sit down. There’s a sugar bowl on the table.”
Seated at the red-timbered kitchen table, Taite sipped the rich and mellow brew, acutely aware of the penetrating gaze from the way-too-interesting woman across from her. Time slowed to a crawl and the hair on the back of Taite’s neck prickled. Every sense launched to high alert, except for rational thought, which ceased and waited, poised.
“She’s my partner.”
And Taite knew she’d passed muster. “Damn.”
After a brief silence, Kreyna Katz chuckled and shook her head, laughing into her cup. “Are you always so transparent, Constable? Nup, not by a long shot. I’m flattered on two counts. For one, you look like jailbait to me. More importantly, you trust me enough to let me know what I guess very few of your colleagues do.”
Taite met her gaze. “None. Not one of my colleagues. It would be very bad news if they did. I find it difficult enough simply being female within police culture. Sexual harassment is pervasive, and if you don’t shut it down by making it clear that it’s unacceptable, you’re in for a rough ride.”
Kreyna frowned. “Not good. Can’t you report harassers?”
“Believe me, it’s not worth the trouble. Some who’ve done so have been severely marginalized. The truth is every second woman has been harassed or bullied. There’s no point in complaining because it only makes the treatment worse and resignation inevitable. AFP management is trying to change the culture, but it’s too slow.”
“Perhaps you might grow a thick skin?”
Taite shrugged and spooned foam off her coffee. “Not so easily done. I topped my class at police training college. You wouldn’t believe the blokey bitchiness I put up with for that. When I could, I gave it back to the guys, which earned some respect. All my life I’ve been defending myself for being a flaming redhead, so I’ve had plenty of practice at verbal sparring.”
“And at keeping your private life private?”
Taite said, “It’s hardly worth having a private life, it’s such an effort to keep one hidden. At the moment, I don’t have that problem. The last two prospective partners protested loudly about the secrecy. I can’t say I blame them. It’s so last century.”
“Sounds worse than the military,” Kreyna said. “But police work must be very rewarding and you must enjoy it.”
“It depends.” Taite clasped and unclasped her fingers around the cup. “Before this appointment, I was relegated to handling victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. In a team of five guys handling an incident, I’d be the one who had to talk to the woman, every time. I hated it—hated being ordered to do little more than comfort, especially those who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave their abusers. After four years, I was calling in favors and applying for every vacancy until I won this one a few months ago and moved from Sydney to Canberra.”
She noticed the kitchen clock. “Oops, I’m expected back at the office—have to go. Anyway, I keep my distance and do the job better than most. So far, I’m enjoying the change. It’s a relief, actually. Thanks for the excellent brew.” She swallowed the dregs, stood to shrug on her coat and flicked her ponytail above the collar.
They both stepped around Wodan, who was blissfully sprawled across the kitchen doorway. Farther down the hall, Kreyna touched Taite’s forearm. “You said something about esoteric knowledge earlier. What did you mean?”
Taite halted, unsure how much to say. “I’ve always had an uncanny knack for knowing what people are thinking, what they’re about to do. It’s been useful on the job and helped me get where I am by drawing positive reports from superiors. My Irish ancestors were reputedly fey, and my great-aunt Anwen—another redhead—taught me to scry when I entered my teens. I haven’t done it for a while, probably because it’s unnerving. And it’s only with patience that I get a result. I’m afraid I’m not always patient.”
Kreyna held the door open. “But you have potential and there’s a need for people like you in the world, more than you know. Perhaps we might discuss this another time?”
“I’d enjoy that,” Taite said, clasping Kreyna’s hand. “I will drop by again when either of us has more information. And thank you.”
Taite took the back road north of Queanbeyan, pushing just above the speed limit in the unmarked, white police Ford. She hadn’t told Kreyna the half of her oddities, especially how they sometimes came in handy. Like the time she'd earned some grudging respect at police training college from her fellow graduates, back in 2006. Fair scared the bastards silly.
After the graduation ceremony, the Australian Federal Police College bar was crowded with people grouped around tables overflowing with beer jugs and glasses. Some played pool at the green baize billiards table, but most either stood or sat around drinking and talking—more like shouting because the noise was that deafening. Taite and her friend Sharyn were at a table with Josh, Nathan, Dan and Ben. Taite and Sharyn had been the only two females in their intake of recruits. Both were good friends with Josh, who chose not to be fazed by the derision he attracted for hanging with chicks. He was average height with above-average strength and intelligence, plus a quietly menacing manner that kept his detractors at bay. Only Taite had finished the course with a higher grade—a two-horse race, in the end.
“How about we go up to my room?” Dan bellowed. “We can listen to some music and relax. I’ll get another two jugs.” He swilled down the last of his beer and stood. Nathan and Ben followed him to the bar. Josh loomed and looked questioningly at the women.
Sharyn leaned in and said, “I think I’ve had enough for one night. Those three certainly have. You go and have fun.”
For a moment, Taite was doubtful. She didn’t particularly like any of those guys, although Nathan seemed nice enough. Anyway, Josh would be there. She would only graduate once—could be cool. And a catch-up with Josh would be great as she didn’t yet know his plans.
Each room in the college’s sleeping quarters had its own bathroom and toilet, a king-size bed and bedside lamp, a computer desk with PC and two easy chairs. Dan turned on the beaten-up mini sound system on the floor next to his bed and pulled over the computer desk chair. Nathan and Ben nabbed the easy chairs. Taite and Josh sat on the bed to talk. She shook her head at the glass Dan offered—she’d stopped drinking at least an hour ago. But Josh took it instead and balanced it on the carpeted floor.
“Any idea where you’re going to be posted?” Taite slumped back on the bed.
“I was hoping for Adelaide because Janelle’s heading back there when she finishes her teaching degree. Her parents want her close by, and I do too.” He smiled shyly, amused by Dan and Ben play-fighting for control of the stereo. Ben trawled through radio stations and a hip-hop song came on, too loud. Josh continued, “We have plans, but it’s not up to us. She wants to go home and see if she can get a position in South Australia, even if it’s rural, which it’s most likely to be.”
Taite sat forward to better hear him. “What if you—?”
Josh’s mobile chimed in his shirt pocket, and he read a message. “Janelle’s downstairs. She said she might come by for a drink with us. I’ll go bring her up.”
As the door closed behind him, Taite suddenly missed Sharyn. They had watched each other’s back on many occasions.
“Let’s find the lady some refined music, guys.” Dan fiddled with the radio station dial. “Nothing’s good enough for her. We sure as shit aren’t.”
Surprised by his sudden hostility, Taite said, “Hey, I don’t care. Play what you like.”
Dan mimicked her words silently. “How did you top the class, exactly? Late night horizontal studies with Josh, you betcha. Wait, this is perfect for you. Old-fart’s crappola.”
Through the speakers came the tune “In an English Country Garden.” The three guys sniggered and sang with the chorus, “La, la, la, la, lah, lah—in an English country garden.” They sang with a sickening emphasis on the first syllable of the word country, glaring contemptuously at Taite all the while. Dan stalked toward her, his face screwed into a leer as he grunted just that syllable, over and over.
Color rose and flushed Taite’s face. She jumped up and took a step to the door, but Dan was already there, hands miming squeezing her breasts. She heard Nathan blurt, “Okay, that’s enough. She’s got the drift. Quit it, guys.”
When Dan turned to snarl something at Nathan, Taite backtracked to the bathroom and dashed inside, slammed and locked the door. Someone rattled the handle, and she braced herself against the jamb. Tears welled and she bit her bottom lip, tasted blood. The thought of being alone with them soured her stomach. And the idea of Dan touching her was beyond revolting. Where the hell were Josh and Janelle?
She grimaced, hands shaking like she’d just hurdled a charging bull, blind panic a moment away. Overhead, the bathroom light flickered and died. From behind the door came guttural arguing and the main door slammed. Taite stood stock-still in the dark and listened to low voices—Dan and Ben only. With Nathan gone, she was in all kinds of trouble.
Taite looked up at where the light should have shined and made herself get very angry, very fast. Was she going to be the evening’s entertainment? Pig’s arse. With teeth clenched hard, she knew her eyes bulged and her face flushed bright red. A vein at her temple pulsed in time with the thundering heartbeat at her throat. She wrenched open the bathroom door.
“You slimy scumbags—should be bloody ashamed of yourselves. Call yourselves coppers, you dumb shits—grow up!” She stomped like a sumo wrestler. “Aa-arrgh!”
The bedside lamp bulb blew. Two of the five bulkhead halogens fizzed out…pfut, pf-pfut. And the guys looked at her, looked at the dead lights.
“You did that. How did you do that?” Ben squeaked.
Taite jabbed a finger up at the fluorescent light. Both tubes exploded, showering glass. Dan and Ben cowered, protecting their heads.
Taite strode to the outer door and flung it wide.
“Should have been your balls!”
Taite looked up from the computer screen at the superintendent.
“So you do answer to that nickname.” Dexter Connaught peered at his newest team member and put down a takeaway coffee. “Peculiar rumors are circulating about your Irish temper. I trust you’re not going to be more trouble than you’re worth.”
“Sir, I wouldn’t believe everything you hear,” Taite said casually. “It’s amazing what stories jealous types invent, isn’t it? Irritating.”
* * *
The Alfa was comfortable enough, but Sabine needed to stretch her legs. In Bologna, she stopped for a late lunch of cannelloni with salad and a shot of espresso. In the café’s powder room, she brushed her hair into a neat wave at her shoulders, refreshed her makeup and replaced her gold stud earrings with more casual hoops. The french-blue super-stretch slim jeans were comfortable for driving and went well with a simple, asymmetrical white linen top. She approved of her outfit in the mirror and tried not to think about the lost diamonds.
Insurance would cover only a modest portion of the loss, which would only stress her father more. He’d become forgetful lately, and she suspected her stepmother, Claudia, was covering for him.
When Sabine was eight, her mother’s car was T-boned by a commuter running a red light at a busy intersection. She died in intensive care later that day, having never regained consciousness. Sabine’s papa, Filippo, was heartbroken and sought comfort in the arms of his chief accountant, Claudia, a divorcée with a then-eleven-year-old son. Filippo and Claudia were married within a year, her pregnancy a pressing reason to do so.
Just quietly, she failed to forgive her father for unseemly haste, for disrespecting her mother’s memory. Even more so for having to endure Claudia’s covert dislike; the feeling was mutual. Claudia’s first loyalty was to Filippo, whom she genuinely loved; next in line was her only son, Aldo.
But Sabine was delighted by her new little sister, who was physically small and dark like Claudia, yet had her father’s open curiosity and creative talent. She and Eliane shared their father’s passion for fine jewelry. That passion had seen Eliane take off to Italy as soon as she finished school. Now twenty years old, she studied jewelry design and goldsmithery at the Scuola di Gioielleria Perseo, not far from the Duomo in the historic center of Florence.
The theft of Zaffiro’s diamonds could stir up trouble within the family. Even though Aldo was eldest and male, he was not a Zaffiro. Filippo had yet to name his successor, and Sabine was determined not to be shut out. So far, Eliane was only interested in the artistic aspects of the jewelry business and didn’t care who managed it. Sabine’s only real ally in the company was her temperamental father. In a state where business seemed to be going normally, all was well. But now? She’d worry about it when she got home.
The final leg from Bologna to Florence seemed interminable. Yet unaccustomed to driving on the right-hand side of the road, she had to concentrate, aware that she was fatigued. The Alfa guided her to Via Sestese in a northern suburb where she stopped to drop a small packet into a letterbox for Aldo’s girlfriend’s family. If the detour had been just for Aldo, she would have balked, but Maria Capresi had always been pleasant to her.
Once she’d negotiated traffic and strange streets to drive south of the Arno River, Sabine was relieved when she found the house where Eliane was boarding with an elderly couple, old friends of their grandparents. The house was on a gray cobbled street named Via dei Velluti. Sabine parked down a narrow laneway littered with Vespas.
At the tall double street doors, Sabine kissed a beaming Eliane on both cheeks. They pulled each other into a tight hug.
Eliane said, “Mia cara sorella, I’m so glad you could come earlier.”
“Yeah, gidday, sis.” When Eliane squinted at her, Sabine said, “Can’t have you going too native on me, no? And why are you even skinnier? You look like a refugee.”
Eliane feigned a slap. “I forget to eat, so what? Come, come, I want to show you the labrys. It’s ready, but only just. Leave your bags in the hall.”
The stairs were narrow and worn from thousands of footsteps over centuries, the faded red flock wallpaper impregnated with the smell of boiled pasta, fried garlic and musty herbs. Each landing held a semi-shuttered window and a moment to pause for breath on their way to the fourth floor.
Eliane said, “They have given me an old room at the top of the house so I can make a mess with my work and it doesn’t matter so much.”
“Where does everyone eat?”
“At the back of the house on the ground floor there’s a kitchen. And a small vegetable garden just outside the back door, with lots of plants growing in pots. The courtyard is shared with neighbors; many older couples live around here.” Eliane pushed open her painted bedroom door.
“An attic window—how wonderful! It’s really quite big, no?” Sabine peered out the dusty window and turned to sit on the rickety single mattress with its knitted coverlet. At the foot of the bed, a small silver tabby raised its head and yawned. “Who’s this?”
“That rascal is Piccolo, the new kitchen cat. He shouldn’t be in here!” Eliane picked him up and snuggled him into her narrow throat. The pixie-style haircut above her delicate face made her eyes look even bigger than usual.
“I can tell you hate him. Hand him over.” Sabine put the cat back on the bed and scratched his chin. Piccolo performed a perfect pirouette and sank into the coverlet.
The room’s ceiling soared, with elaborate plaster cornices and a centerpiece for the solitary light globe. A tired Persian-style rug covered an old linoleum floor. But all was neat and clean, except near Eliane’s work desk, which held a lamp, tools and papers. Books were placed in piles around the legs.
Eliane scooped something from the desktop and sat next to Sabine, hands clasped.
With anxious eyes, she said, “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. It’s a little bit different from what we discussed and might need more polishing.”
“Stop making me wait and show me. I know I’m going to love it.”
Eliane opened her hand, and Sabine stared avidly at the lustrous gold pendant. She turned the double ax over and gasped. “The Mother Goddess, no less. Bellissima. And she’s rose gold against the ax’s yellow gold. Have you a loupe handy?”
From her work desk, Eliane fetched a jeweler’s eyepiece for Sabine, who screwed it into her right eye socket and examined the labrys. “You’re such a clever girl. This is absolutely beautiful, very fine shaping. I didn’t know you could do such a thing with lost wax casting. I can even see the expression on the Goddess’s face. You’ve given her a very satisfied smile.”
“Take your cross off, please.”
Sabine unclasped the eighteen karat gold chain and cross she’d worn since being confirmed in the Catholic Church at the age of thirteen. Eliane threaded the labrys onto the chain and reached to fasten it behind Sabine’s neck. The sisters looked at each other and began to giggle.
Sabine snorted and burst into peels of wild laughter. “It’s out there! Can’t wait to see the look on Claudia’s face.”
“My mamma won’t know what it is.”
“Yes, but I will.”
The following day, Sabine and Eliane had been across the Ponte Vecchio and were returning home for lunch. They’d gone to the Silver Museum in the Pitti Palace at ten a.m. to ogle the antique Medici treasures and contemporary jewelry on display. After two hours, Sabine couldn’t absorb any more. Cartier’s diamond-and-amethyst tiara had held her enthralled for ten minutes, but the room soon became a dazzling blur of one exquisite piece after another. In comparison, the rows of jewelry shops on the bridge seemed a dull reflection of the museum’s magnificent collection.
At the piazzetta in the middle of the bridge, people stopped to take photos of the river and loitered at the open-air stalls selling bags and souvenirs. Under one arch a portly older man played violin and collected coins in a case laid open on the worn gray bridge pavers.
“Let me buy you a gelato,” Sabine said. “Is there anywhere we can sit and people-watch?”
“Off the bridge. Usually I take the Ponte Santa Trinita to go to school over there, just to avoid the crowd.” Eliane waved vaguely westward down the Arno.
The unshaven young gelati salesman wore a black apron and white baseball cap. He batted long lashes at Sabine and flashed appreciative smiles at both women. In handing her the loose change, he caressed Sabine’s palm and said, “Ciao bella!”
Eliane rolled her eyes and smirked at Sabine, who failed to be flattered. Pink gelati in hand, they threaded their way through the throng of camera-draped tourists until they found a vacant alcove.
Cross-legged on the bench, Eliane asked, “Have you any idea how badly the loss from the robbery will affect the business? Now I’m wondering about my studies and if I should come home to help.”
“Cara, please don’t worry yet,” Sabine patted Eliane’s knee. “Concentrate on your studies. Enjoy your time here; it’s precious. Are you and Tino serious yet? Yes, him, that guy in your class.”
Eliane’s color rose. “He’s nice. We share a few classes, and talk a little. His English is awful, so we’re saved by my adequate Italian. I want to keep my distance because it’s too distracting. I’m not about to make bambinos with him, which seems to be all the local boys think about.”
“Very mature of you.” Sabine pursed her lips in amusement. Smile fading, she continued, “Roman has asked me to marry him.”
Mid-lick, Eliane started. “Holy Mary, you’re in trouble. What did you say?”
“I asked for a three month break. In other words, time apart to think about it.”
“Oh no, you didn’t, did you? I know what that means, and he has no idea. You’re dumping him. Sabine, how could you?”
“We’ve been dating for almost two years and he’s never said even the tiniest romantic word. How could I know he’d gone soft on me?” Sabine flung up her hands, nearly losing the gelato cone. “One day he says casually, ‘We can talk about marriage if you feel like it.’ What is that? And I thought he was the least marriageable Italian in Canberra. What can I do?”
“I don’t know, but you can’t keep hiding forever. It’s like the labrys—a too-tame rebellion.” Eliane crossed her arms and frowned. “You’re not covering yourself in glory, you know. And what about Roman? For him to talk of marriage means he cares about you.”
Sabine bowed her head and clutched an elbow. “In the eyes of the church I remain acceptable, which is what matters to Papa. Not to mention Claudia and Aldo. Yes, I must be hurting Roman. As I have too many before him. I assure you it was not my intention, because I thought he was immune. And he’s been the perfect boyfriend. Definitely deserves better.”
“Then nothing. I’m not about to out myself; there’s too much at stake. It’s just the excuse Claudia needs to shut me out, and she has Papa’s ear. He wouldn’t tolerate that from me at any time. I would lose my position in the business and a great deal of money. Everything, in effect.”
“Sometimes I think you worry too much about money and security, let it run your life.”
“I’m queer, remember? I don’t have the luxury of thinking some guy will front up and look after me. If I don’t, no one else will. I need money to live, so the business is my life. Besides, it’s not like I have someone to lose it for, no?”
“Well, not since Adair a hundred years ago. Honestly, would you let anyone near you again?”
Sabine contemplated a cloudy Florentine sky. “Sixteen. It’s been sixteen years. And no, I wouldn’t. You think I’ll find someone worth ruining my life for? Impossible, I refuse to think about it.”
“What next? Find another like poor Roman?”
Hurt closed Sabine’s soft brown eyes. “Abbi pieta, cara. You’re being very hard on me. You don’t know what it’s like.”
Eliane clasped her sister’s hand and looked intently at her. “It’s only because I believe you can find a purposeful life beyond the business. It can’t be as impossible as you say.”
“Are you sure, now? Come on, I have to pack for the drive to Rome airport in the morning. Let’s forget about everything, have a superb authentic dinner and a great evening with the oldies. Andiamo!”