Book Excerpt: HEARTS IN VEGAS - Opening Scene
IF TWENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Frances Jefferies had learned anything from her years as a pickpocket, it was the importance of blending in to one’s surroundings.
Today, February 5, her task was to steal a valuable brooch from Fortier’s, a high-end jewelry store in Las Vegas. To blend in with the Wednesday bling-shopping crowd, she’d put on a red-and-leopard-print top underneath a loose-fitting Yves Saint Laurent white silk pantsuit, and a pair of killer Dolce & Gabbana stilettos.
Time for one last practice run.
She retrieved two similar-size brooches from a dresser drawer. One, a rhinestone flower-petaled pin, was an exact replica of the diamond-encrusted Lady Melbourne brooch stolen ten years ago from a museum in Amsterdam. Its whereabouts had been unknown until it suddenly, and mysteriously, surfaced at Fortier’s a few days ago. She slipped the replica into an inside pocket of her jacket and set the other pin on her dresser.
Watching her reflection in the dresser mirror, she practiced the sleight-of-hand trick, deftly plucking the brooch from the pocket and swiftly replacing it with the other pin, three times in succession. Each switch went smoothly.
Now for the finishing touch. She selected a pair of antique garnet earrings from her jewelry box and put them on.
Leaning closer to the mirror, she swept a strand of her ash-blond hair off her face, tucking it lightly into her chignon. Her gaze slipped to her lower cheek. This close, she could see the faint outline of silicon gel underneath her meticulously applied makeup. For anyone else to see it, they would have to be inches away, and she never let anyone get that close.
A few moments later, she walked into the living room, where her dad sat in his favorite chair, shuffling a deck of cards. A basketball game was on TV, the crowd yelling as a player dunked the ball.
“Still working on The Trick That Fooled Houdini?” she asked.
He grinned and set the cards on a side table. “Like Houdini, I can’t figure out how Vernon did it, either.”
Dai Vernon, Houdini’s contemporary, had devised a card routine where a spectator’s chosen card always appeared at the top of the deck. Houdini, who bragged that he could figure out any magician’s trick, never solved this one.
Her dad, who’d worked as a magician his entire life, had never solved it, either. Sometimes he jokingly referred to it as The Trick That Fooled Houdini and Jonathan Jefferies.
“Going to work?” he asked.
His thinning dark hair was neatly parted on the side, and a pair of reading glasses hung on a chain around his neck. He had a slight paunch, but otherwise stayed in shape from daily walks and a fairly healthy diet, if one overlooked his love of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
She looked at his faded Hawaiian-print shorts and Miami Heat T-shirt with its ripped sleeve, wishing he’d let her buy him some new clothes. But he liked to stick with what was “tried-and-true,” from his haircut to clothes.
“Yes, off to work. If I leave in a few minutes, I should be there by three. The owner got back from a late lunch an hour ago. He and the security guard will be the only employees in the jewelry store the rest of the afternoon.”
“Good girl, you did your homework.” He paused, noticing her earrings. “Oh,” he said, his eyes going soft, “you’re wearing your mother’s jewelry.”
Frances’s mother, Sarah, had been her father’s tried-and-true soul mate. When she eloped at nineteen with a little-known Vegas magician, her wealthy family disinherited her. If my upbringing had been happy, she’d told her daughter, disowning me might have mattered. Instead, it released me to a better life.
The only items Sarah Jefferies had of her family’s were a small jewelry collection, gifted to her by her late grandmother.
“Mom’s earrings will be my calling card today,” Frances said, touching one of them. She loved antique jewelry, especially early-nineteenth-century Georgian, the era of these earrings and the Lady Melbourne brooch.
“She’s happy to know she’s helping. We’re proud of you, Francie.”
He often spoke of his wife in the present tense, which used to bother Frances, but she accepted it more these days. Sometimes she even envied her dad’s sense of immediacy about his late wife. Frances was painfully aware it had been four years this past summer—July 15, 1:28 in the afternoon—when they’d lost her, and shamefully aware of the pain she’d brought her parents in the months leading up to her mother’s death.
Nearly five years ago, Frances had been arrested on a jewelry theft. It had been humiliating to be caught, but agonizing to see the hurt on her parents’ faces. Especially after she admitted to them the theft hadn’t been a onetime deal. After learning sleight-of-hand tricks from her dad as a kid, she’d segued into picking pockets in her teens, then small jewelry thefts by the time she was twenty. At the time, she selfishly viewed her thefts as once-a-year indulgences, but it didn’t matter if she’d stolen once or dozens of times—what’d she done had been wrong.
Jonathan Jefferies blamed himself for his daughter’s criminal activities, believing she had resorted to theft because he’d been unable to adequately support his family as a magician. When Frances was growing up, the family had sometimes relied on friends for food, or went without electricity, or suffered through eviction because there hadn’t been enough money to pay the rent.
The judge, moved by Frances’s difficult upbringing and her mother’s failing health, had offered her a second chance. Instead of giving her a ten-year prison sentence, he’d suspended her sentence as long as she met certain conditions, a common solution for people with a high potential for rehabilitation.
For Frances, her conditions were threefold. One, either attend college or obtain full-time legitimate employment, including any position where she applied her skills for a positive end. Two, pay restitution to the victim. Three, do not break any local, state or federal laws. As if she had a yen to ever break a law again.
As far as college or a job, her probation officer matched her “skills” to Vanderbilt Insurance, a company that was looking for an investigator to track stolen jewels and antiquities.
Sometimes these investigations, such as the one today, required her pickpocket skills. She would be taking back the Lady Melbourne brooch, which was the legal property of Vanderbilt Insurance, since they had already paid the fifty-thousand-dollar insurance claim from the museum.
End of Excerpt - Hearts in Vegas