Reluctant Burglar by
Jill Elizabeth Nelson
If Desiree Jacobs knows anything, it's art. Her father, internationally renowned museum security expert, taught her everything he knew. Most of all, he taught her about honor—integrity—faith. So surely God will forgive her for despising the man determined to destroy her father's good name?
Special Agent Tony Lucano knows Hiram Jacobs is an art thief. But is his daughter, Desiree, the innocent she claims, or a clever accomplice?
Then Hiram is murdered. And along with his company, he leaves Desiree a hidden container—full of stolen paintings. But she can't admit her father was a thief! The scandal would destroy their business, put her staff out of jobs, and embarrass international museums that have been displaying clever forgeries. No, she must find out why her honest father would turn criminal. And she must return the priceless art to the rightful owners without their knowledge. Even if it means facing down a ring of cutthroat art thieves.
Even if it means accepting help from the man she most distrusts…
Desiree Jacobs schooled her breathing as she handed her ID to the museum guard.
Relax…just relax. This guy has no idea what you’re up to.
The man scowled at the card, then at her, then back at the photo of a blond, blue-eyed, thirtyish female—a reasonable facsimile of the live version. With a curt nod to the receptionist seated behind a high mahogany desk, he handed the card back to Desiree. Then he stalked off on the rounds she’d interrupted when she showed up insisting on access to the restricted area.
Desi turned a smile on the perky receptionist. The woman grinned back and offered a broad wink—a much nicer welcome than old Sour-Britches.
The receptionist lifted her telephone handset and punched in a few numbers. “Olivia Layton from the National Antiquities Society is here to see you, Dr. Plate.” She hung up and looked at Desi. “You can go right in.” The woman pressed a button under her desk, and a thick door to Desi’s left swung open with a slight buzz.
Desi felt the impassive eye of the security camera follow her as she turned on the heel of her designer pumps and marched into the private inner sanctum of the Boston Public Museum of Arts and Antiquities. Dingy beige walls begged a fresh coat of paint, but who would notice the improvement in this dim hallway?
Shadows loomed. The place reeked of ancient secrets. Desi’s skin prickled.
Just call me Indiana Jane…
She stifled a laugh. The “ancient secrets” she smelled were cleaning solutions used to preserve the priceless art the museum displayed, as well as a few extraordinary items not so open to scrutiny.
The palm of her right hand, curved around the handle of her leather briefcase, felt dry, cool. The soft fabric of her pantsuit shushed against her skin. Assurance blanketed her down to her little pinkie toe. Prayer and planning were the linchpins of any successful operation, her father always said.
A great deal rode on the outcome of her first solo run. Dad might finally have to admit that he could entrust the high pressure end of the business to someone else. He needed to take care of himself now that the doctor said—
A door at the end of the corridor sprang open, and a round man stepped out. “Ms. Layton.” He ran a pudgy hand across the bald dome of his head. “I’m Dr. Sanderson Plate, chief curator. We’ll meet in here.” He shook her hand and ushered her into a stuffy cubicle.
Dog-eared magazines and stacks of treatises littered the desk and floor, even the guest chair. Vintage museum office. Government-funded facilities didn’t often have money or space for decent offices. Boston Public was no exception.
Plate scooped a stack of periodicals off the chair and motioned for Desi to be seated. He took his place behind the desk and folded his hands across his paunch. A smile widened his cheeks but stopped below his nose.
Does he know more than he should? Desi’s chest tightened.
She set her briefcase on the floor beside her. Leaning back in her chair, she crossed her legs. Whatever the outcome, she’d play the caper through with style.
A Jacobs can do no less.
“What did my office tell you about the purpose of my visit?”
Plate returned a sober gaze. “You question the authenticity of our most recent acquisition. Evidently, the Society esteems your opinion more than that of our conservators.” Resentment trickled through his voice. “I agreed to your examination of the piece to silence any doubts. I am confident your suspicion will prove unfounded.” He lifted his chin.
Desi lowered her gaze to the desk, where three of his fingers performed a muted tap dance. “May I see the painting?”
“As soon as you sign this affidavit assuming responsibility for any damage caused by your testing.” He shoved a piece of paper and a pen across his desk toward her.
Desiree grinned on the inside. Gotcha!
Plate apparently hoped that the threat of liability might deter her examination, allowing the original authentication to stand unchallenged. The curator would try that bit of fancy footwork on her only if he believed her credentials from the National Antiquities Society. Museum personnel hated having their judgment questioned, especially by a third-party watchdog organization like the NAS.
Desi took the pen and signed Olivia Layton. “May we get started now? I don’t wish to take up any more of your time than necessary.”
The curator rose and led her out of his office. They went up another corridor; then he unlocked a door that let them into a small room containing glass cases with items in storage. Desi admired a collection of Native American black-on-white pottery while Plate scanned his key card through the lock of a large metal door. When the door unlatched, they entered a halogen-lit, climate-controlled room. Cupboards and shelves laden with supplies framed the perimeter. A large worktable sat in the center.
On the end of the table nearest them lay the Renoir—a charming pastoral scene recently discovered in a forgotten bomb shelter in Germany, where it had been collecting dust since World War II. The painting lay unframed and ready for her analysis…er, rather, Olivia Layton’s analysis.
Desiree drank in the beauty of the work. Like her father, she could wander for hours in art galleries and museums, but neither of them had a speck of artistic talent. Too left-brained. No doubt the reason they chose instead to do what they did.
Plate fussed with the angle of the goosenecked table lamp. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you seem young for such a level of expertise.”
“I hear that comment often.” Stop mooning and get with the program, girl.
Desi opened her briefcase. Donning her headgear, she slid the magnifying loupe in front of her eye and leaned over the picture to examine brushstrokes and cracks in the paint.
Plate hovered like a hummingbird. He fidgeted and paced, never more than a few steps away. Desi curbed an urge to kick him, though she couldn’t blame him for a display of nerves. Based on Boston Public’s expert opinion, one of the museum’s most generous donors had paid major bucks for the picture. If the NAS cast the smallest doubt…well, Plate’s smooth dome might be handed to him in a basket.
She took a small scalpel from her case and harvested an almost microscopic fleck of paint, then sealed the fleck in a tiny container of epoxy. She lifted her ultraviolet wand to scan the painting’s surface for tampering. So far the Renoir looked genuine—not that she’d had any doubts.
Precious seconds ticked past. Where is Max?
A shrill alarm sounded. Sanderson Plate jumped. A shiver ran through Desiree. Good old Max.
The curator touched her arm. “I need to see what caused the security breach. Once I leave, you will be locked in here until I return or unless the fire alarm sounds and releases the door automatically. Is that acceptable to you?”
“By all means.” Oh, please, do go. “You can never be too careful.”
Plate’s round face colored. “Just following policy. If you can’t trust a representative of the National Antiquities Society, whom can you trust?”
The man bustled out. Desiree watched the door shut behind him. A leap of her heart echoed the lock’s click.
Desi smiled. Whom, indeed?
She turned back to the painting and set about her true business.
* * *
Curator Plate returned to the locked room ten minutes later, shaking his head. “Another false alarm.” He took a narrow-eyed look at the painting on the table. “You’re finished?”
Desi nodded. “For now.”
“Very good. Allow me to escort you to the door.”
A few minutes later, Desiree walked into the sunshine of the April afternoon. She paused at the top of the stairs leading down to the street. A breeze ruffled her shoulder-length hair. Ah, the sweet scent of success. Just an ocean tang overlaid by vehicle exhaust and the smells of busy humanity, but it was her Boston. Like the brownstone buildings and Victorian architecture on this edge of historic downtown.
The people, however, belonged to the twenty-first century. Wheeler-dealers with cell phones, iPods, and BlackBerries. Speed walkers and Rollerbladers. No one so much as glanced in her direction. Perfect! She moved toward the sidewalk doing mental backflips and cartwheels.
Midway down, she halted. Her whole body went stiff.
Up the street, a man in a dark gray suit stood, his back to her, beside a car bearing the logo of the city police. He was talking to an officer through the open window.
There was no mistaking the square set of those shoulders and the curly black hair that refused to lie flat. Special Agent Tony Lucano from the Organized Crime Division of the Boston FBI Field Office. The man handling the legwork on an art theft ring operating in his backyard.
Would he know me if he turned his head? Her pulse rate climbed.
She looked away, slipped her sunglasses on, and finished her descent. A white commercial van waited half a block in the opposite direction of Agent Lucano. Her legs wanted to run toward the vehicle, but she held herself to a brisk walk, blending in with sidewalk traffic.
If Lucano caught her, he wouldn’t care that she was within feet of her documentation. He’d enjoy hauling her in for questioning. The man delighted in harassing her. Well, maybe not her so much, but her father for sure.
Desi’s stomach rolled. Great. She’d concluded Phase I of the operation without breaking a sweat but was reduced to acid indigestion by the sight of one bright but grossly mistaken man. Her father would never—
No! She wouldn’t go there.
Desi reached the van and yanked open the passenger door.
“Hey!” The plump, red-haired woman in the driver’s seat lowered a disposable cup from her lips. “You almost made me spill my cappuccino. Where’s the fire? Did you get caught or something?”
Desi slid into the seat. “The operation went smooth as glass. But I can tell you right now that they need a surveillance camera in that workroom of theirs.” She set her briefcase on the floor by the center console. “Great timing on the alarm, by the way. Hope you got a few ideas for security measures while everyone scurried around.”
Max snorted. Apparently that little assignment didn’t rate a mention. “What gives, girl? You don’t often get that look on your face. Like a cross between a mule and a bronco. Last time was when that hot Italian agent came around and…ohhhh…” She narrowed her cat-green eyes, then laughed. “Tall, dark, and intense musta been hangin’ around again. And he missed you? What a hoot!”
A knot loosened inside Desi. “I’m soooo glad ten years of East Coast haven’t messed with your West Texas sense of humor. I needed your perspective.” She looked at her watch. “I’d better change for Phase II. The museum director expects me in less than half an hour.”
She climbed into the cargo compartment of the van, the back half of which held racks of electronics. The front half served as a changing room, complete with a dresser and small mirror, an array of cosmetics, and several wig stands.
While Max filled Desi in on observations she’d made about security in the museum, Desi removed the blond wig. She brushed her sable brown hair and then fluffed it into waves that ended in a tapered cut just below her ears. Next she took out the blue contact lenses and put them in their case. She fluttered her lids to moisten her hazel eyes. Cold cream and tissue scrubbed away the heavy makeup the fictitious Olivia Layton favored. Desi reapplied foundation, blush, and eye makeup with a light hand. Then she changed into a navy pin-striped skirt suit.
Max blinked at her when she resumed her seat in front. “I never get used to the way you do that. Take off this, put on that, and here you are—no trace of the woman who just robbed a museum.”
Desi laughed and patted her briefcase. “Better get this back where it belongs. Do you have the contract?”
“One get-out-of-jail-free pass comin’ up.” Max fished in the glove compartment and pulled out a manila envelope.
Desi took the packet. A lump formed under her breastbone.
This next part of the operation was as delicate as the first. She had to finesse the return of the painting in a way that smoothed raised hackles and enticed museum management to follow HJ Securities’ recommendations. Her dad, Hiram Jacobs, was legendary in the business as diplomacy personified.
How can I measure up? The lump grew. I’m his daughter, that’s how. I’ve been trained by the best. I can’t fail. I can’t!
Max bumped her arm. “What brought the frown back?”
She shook her head. “This isn’t my favorite part of the operation, you know.” She stepped out of the van.
“Oops! Almost forgot.” Desi plucked her real ID card out of the pouch on the side of the seat and put it in her blazer pocket. “Best go back in as myself. Do you think that grumpy guard will notice he’s admitted me before?”
Max clucked her tongue and grinned. “That’s the least of your problems, girlfriend. What are you gonna say if Agent Pacino stops you on the way back in?”
“That’s Lucano, Max.”
“Yeah, but doesn’t he just remind you so much of Al in Serpico?”
“Mr. Clean-Cut Gentleman’s Quarterly and a seventies hippie cop? Hardly.”
“Oh, forget the hair and beard from the movie.” Max waved a hand. “That’s window dressing. It’s in the eyes, Des. They could x-ray lead.”
Desi hooted. “The X-ray eyes must have malfunctioned this afternoon. I got clean away, right under his nose.”
She left Max chuckling and headed back toward the museum. The next few minutes meant the world to her future. Her dad’s health was on the line. She had to land this client—prove to her dad that he could back off and let her take a greater share of the responsibility. When he came home tomorrow from his business trip in Europe, she’d have all the ammunition she needed to make him listen to reason about the company he served like a slave.
He’s got to take good advice this time. Please, God, I don’t want to lose him.
* * *
Thick carpet cushioned Desi’s walk across the mile-wide office toward Director Jacqueline Taylor’s desk. Model slim and attractive in a Julie Andrews way, the director stood and gave Desi’s hand a squeeze.
“Make yourself comfortable.” Taylor motioned toward the only unoccupied guest chair. Two men rose from the other seats. “This is Edgar Graham, our security manager, and Dr. Plate you’ve met. Gentlemen, this is Desiree Jacobs of HJ Securities Company.” She settled into her leather executive chair and picked up a sheaf of papers. “Please allow me a moment. I’m reviewing the contract once more.”
Desi exchanged handshakes with the men and sat down. She crossed her ankles and held the briefcase on her lap.
Plate leaned toward her. “If we had met, surely I would remember.”
Desi smiled. “We were introduced under rather odd circumstances. I would be surprised if you knew me as you see me now.”
“A mystery.” Graham’s deep-set eyes bored into her from beneath bushy brows. He was a sharp-nosed man with thinning hair.
“All will be explained in due time.” Taylor’s firm tone squelched conversation.
Desi’s hopes sank. She doesn’t sound too interested.
With nothing else to do, Desi took stock of her surroundings. Polished teakwood furniture. Wet bar recessed into the wall. Marble pedestal displaying a massive brass vase of silk flowers. And the carpet…a girl could lose her shoes. Someone’s got great taste on the expensive side. All show to snag potential donors and impress board members.
Ms. Taylor commanded the room from a leather executive chair. Her steel gray hair, trimmed close around her head, and the maturity lines in her face said upper forties or early fifties. Either she made regular use of a tanning bed or her Nordic features hid Mediterranean blood. The woman twirled a pen between slender fingers.
Now there was a good sign.
Taylor laid the pen and the contract down and focused on the two men. “I asked you here for this.” She nodded toward Desi.
Filling her lungs, Desi rose. Be confident. Breathe deep and even. Smile, but let them see that you understand their feelings. No one likes to be duped, even for their own good. She slid the Renoir from the false side of her briefcase and laid the picture on the desk.
Graham bounded to his feet, glaring; Plate sank back like a deflated balloon. He stared up at Desi.
His mouth flopped open. “Olivia Layton?”
Desi nodded. “You have a sharp eye. I’ve fooled my best friend a time or two.”
“But the painting was on the table when you left.”
“A copy made in the nineteenth century worth a few hundred dollars on the open market.”
The security chief let out a strangled noise. “Ms. Taylor, you knew about this?”
The administrator sat forward. “You were informed several weeks ago that the board had authorized hiring a security consultant. I challenged HJ Securities to prove that our museum needs them. We signed a provisional agreement, pending the outcome of today’s contrived heist. I was aware of every detail in advance.” She inclined her head toward Desi. “I was surprised that you proposed such a simple plan…and that it worked.” A smile softened the severity of her words.
Desi bottled an urge to crow. Too soon. The ink wasn’t dry on the signature line yet. She glanced at the security manager. His face still resembled rare beef. Time to define the issues, then apply balm to the wounds. Warmth flowed through Desi. She could do this.
“Master criminals dropping from skylights and slipping through laser detectors are the exceptions in the art theft world. Low-tech heists, such as what happened today, are far more common. The patrons streaming through your doors, as well as people who appear to be on legitimate business, are potential threats. But that’s not the worst. Employees are the most frequent culprits and the most difficult threat to guard against.”
Taylor pursed her lips and stared at the ceiling. Plate paled as he ran a hand across his smooth head. Graham scowled.
“Yes, I know that suspecting your coworkers is a bitter pill to swallow. HJ Securities helps museums and private collectors develop methods to protect against all types of theft, as well as establish fire and disaster plans. We’re not here to cost anyone their jobs, but to enhance their ability to do them.”
She motioned toward Curator Plate. “For instance, when you got the call from the National Antiquities Society requesting to send someone over to test authenticity, you should have instructed your receptionist to call the NAS to confirm the appointment. Such an inquiry would have uncovered one of two things: that no Olivia Layton works for the NAS or that the real Olivia Layton has no knowledge of an appointment. Voilà! One imposter exposed. You could then have caught me in the act, and I’d be cooling my heels in a jail cell right now.”
Desi suppressed a shudder at the thought.
The curator grinned. “That’s so easy.”
“Oh, yes. Simple procedures can save your museum from irreplaceable losses.”
Furrows smoothed from between Graham’s thick brows. “You mentioned disaster plans. Does that mean you can help me update that pesky plan that never seems to get off my desk?”
“Of course.” Desi nodded. “In fact, I have a sample manual in my case. I’ll give it to you before I leave today. You can study the material, and our firm’s experts will work with you to fit the specifics to Boston Public’s needs.”
“One moment, everyone.” Director Taylor waved her pen. “I haven’t signed yet.”
“Sign it,” Plate said.
Graham bobbed his head. “Please.”
Tension dissolved in shared laughter.
Desi restrained a grin. Oh, Dad, I can’t wait to tell you about my day.
Taylor cleared her throat and shifted in her chair. “I just have one final question. Well, not a question. More of a comment, since I don’t believe the rumors about a man who’s been on the cutting edge of the security business for the past thirty years, but—”
A chill flowed through Desi’s veins, but she kept her tone level. “I assume you’re referring to the nonsense that got started when a federal agent began making careless and unfounded inquiries? I assure you, Ms. Taylor, our firm has filed a protest with the man’s superiors. This is a prime example of overzealous investigation harming a legitimate business.”
The director nodded. “Good. Then let’s execute that contract. Everyone at Boston Public will feel much safer when we have a tight rein on security.”
Yeah, and I’d better get a tight rein on my temper, or I may just feed a certain federal agent his badge.
The signed contract safe in her briefcase, Desi took a cab to the office. Max had gone ahead with the van so she could start systems analyses at her computer while Desi wrapped up business with the museum director.
The international headquarters of HJ Securities operated out of a modern single-story wood and glass building that took up a corner lot in a prosperous district. Quiet and a hint of floral potpourri welcomed her in the reception area. She chatted with the administrative assistant, who was seated behind a marble-topped counter, to gather an update on the day’s activity. Then she headed back toward her office.
Desi passed Max’s open door, and the redhead looked up from her work. Raised eyebrows begged the question. Desi did a little two-step. Max shot her a thumbs-up. They shared a grin; then Max returned to her computer screen.
Settled behind her desk, Desi began putting together a schedule for interviews with key museum employees. An hour later, she rubbed a hand across her face and sat back. Concentrate, woman. She eyed her dismal progress on the computer screen.
Too bad tar and feathers went out with colonial days. Lucano was shredding an innocent man’s reputation and had yet to uncover a single piece of real evidence.
Desi shot from her chair and paced to the window overlooking a strip of manicured lawn. Stop fuming. Just stop. Agonizing got her nowhere. She knew chapter and verse on a Christian’s obligation to forgive.
Might be easier if I didn’t see the hypocrite every Sunday. A few months ago, Lucano had possessed the gall to join the church she and her father attended. Even pretended to be a believer. Hah! The only thing that man believed were his trumped up suspicions.
“How about hittin’ Chi-Chi’s with Dean and me for supper tonight?”
Desi jumped. She turned to find Max leaning against the door frame.
“You deserve to celebrate.” Her friend laughed. “Boston Public hasn’t hired a security consultant in its entire 150 years of existence. Thanks to you, they’ve joined the twenty-first century after skippin’ most of the twentieth.”
Desi forced a smile. A spicy Mexican meal usually tempted her, and Max’s husband never treated her like the odd person out when they made it a threesome. But she wouldn’t make very good company.
“Thanks for the offer, but I need to get home. In fact, I’m leaving right now. Dad will be calling with his flight schedule for tomorrow, and I want to make sure his precious jade collection is dusted and his plants are watered.”
“Well, soon then?”
“You got it.”
Forty-five minutes later, Desiree crossed a small wooden porch and walked into a two-story clapboard home in the Boston district of Charlestown. She’d grown up in this house as the only child of a widower. Dusk had fallen, so she flipped on the lights in the enclosed foyer, then turned to the panel on the wall and punched in the code to neutralize the alarm system. The house lay quiet except for the ticking of a clock on the vestibule table.
A door to her right led into the downstairs living area, but she unlocked a door on her left and climbed the stairs to her second-floor apartment. She loved being able to stay in familiar surroundings, yet have her own space.
Dad was canny that way. When she turned twenty-one and returned from college without Mr. Right in her hip pocket, he had remodeled the upstairs for her use. He never visited without knocking first and expected the same courtesy of her. They led independent lives, despite the fact that they were wedded to the same business.
Desi grinned. Like father, like daughter. If only he’d lighten up on her social life—or lack thereof. Before he left on his sweep through England, France, and Italy, he’d given her another “You need to get out, have more fun, find a nice guy” lecture. Like he should talk!
She plunked her briefcase onto the coffee table and headed for her bedroom to change into jeans and a sweatshirt.
Hiram Jacobs had made no effort to remarry after his wife was killed in a car accident soon after Desi’s birth. If he didn’t need a woman, then why did he think his daughter needed a man to make her complete? If marriage was God’s plan for her, then He’d have to drop Golden Boy in her path, because she wasn’t interested in looking. She’d seen too many desperation matches in her singles group at church. No, that was not for her. She was happy with her life the way it was, thank you very much.
Humming, Desi prepared a supper of soup, and peaches with cottage cheese, all washed down with hot green tea. She rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher, wiped her hands, and headed for the stairs. She stopped in the middle of the living room. Headlights glared through the twin dormer windows. A car was turning into their driveway.
Dad? Early? How like him to try to surprise her with his homecoming. He often came and went at odd hours, especially these past few months. If she didn’t know better, she’d suspect he was hiding something. Maybe even a girlfriend. She smiled at the nutso thought. Well, he wasn’t going to put one over on her this time. She would be right there to welcome him.
Desi hustled down the stairs, stepping into the foyer just as the doorbell rang. Her shoulders slumped. Dad wouldn’t ring the bell. She glanced through the diamond of beveled glass in the door. Her hand froze on the knob.
Tony Lucano stood there, grim-eyed and frowning. What else was new?
Desi opened the door. “My father isn’t here.”
Despite her firm resolution to dislike everything about this man, the mellow timbre of his voice wrapped around her. She steeled herself against it, studying him with a critical eye. His knee-length coat hung unbuttoned over his suit; his black hair was even more disheveled than usual.
All of which only made him more attractive.
Desi gritted her teeth. Fine. The man was nice looking. She’d concede on that point. But that didn’t mean she liked him. And it certainly didn’t mean she trusted him.
Lucano gestured with his hand. “May I come in?”
His urgency stopped the refusal on her tongue. She stepped back, crossing her arms over her chest. Anything to provide a barrier against his intrusion on her space.
The agent took a single stride over the threshold. His presence filled the foyer as he closed the door. Desi looked up into the face she knew so well—one seemingly chiseled from granite. Hard. Cold. Except…
Lucano’s eyes were warm. She’d never seen them any way but hard and assessing. Her breath hitched.
This softer look scared her.
He stuck his hands into his coat pockets, glanced at the floor, then back up at her. “I’m sorry to bring bad news, but I thought it should come from me since I took the call.”
“Daddy?” The word squeaked between her lips.
“Let me guess. You arrested him, right?” Her fingernails bit into her palms.
The agent shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s no longer possible. It happened in Rome. He’s been—”
“Oh, it’s his health then! The doctor warned him his heart could be a problem.” She gripped her hands together, refusing to let fear overwhelm her. “We’ll get him the best medical care. Dad’ll be all right. He’s tough—”
The agent’s hands clamped around her arms. She gazed up into dark eyes.
“Miss Jacobs, your father was murdered in his hotel room in Italy. I’m sorry, but he’s dead.”
Subzero vacuum squeezed the breath from her lungs. Liar! Liar! She struggled to scream, but the sound stuck in her throat. She could only shake her head.
Desi’s fist struck out, hitting the broad chest in front of her. Again. Again. She lunged at her enemy—
Then she was crushed in arms too strong to fight. Shards of light exploded behind her eyes, and her knees buckled as she surrendered to something she’d never known before.
Excerpted from The Reluctant Burglar Copyright 2006 by Jill Elizabeth Nelson.
Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc., a division of Random House, Inc.
Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.