Eustace Dench, master criminal, paid the cabby with a legitimate five pound note, accepted his change, gave the man a twenty pence tip—not enough; the chap did not touch his cap—and turned away to take the delectable Lida’s slender arm. It was not raining, but otherwise it was unmistakably London—Belgravia, Herbert Way, a curving street of magnificent ivory-colored houses, several of them still private residences, the others all converted into embassies, offices, clubs or oil-sheiks’ pieds-à-terre. Number nine, with a large black "9" painted on the pillars flanking the entrance, was Eustace’s destination: the Tobacco and Artillery Club, founded 1711. "Come along, my dear," he said to the lovely Lida, and they crossed the flagstones.
"Every country involved in the exposition is building a pavilion," Eustace explained, and popped a delicious shrimp into his mouth. "All over the city," he said, and waved an arm to indicate Paris, teeming just beyond the restaurant windows. He was here with Lida, ingesting magnificent bouillabaisse in this tiny Left Bank restaurant on the Quai des Grands-Augustins, in order to tell his story to Jean LeFraque, a charming debonair middle-aged conman with a sinfully tiny moustache. "Each nation’s building," he went on, "will reflect the style and thinking of that nation."
Jean paused briefly in his admiring perusal of Lida to sigh, shake his head, and say, "How I despise architecture."
Peeling the sweet meat from the carapace of a lobster fragment, Eustace said, "Lynch is having a building in Yerbadoro dismantled and shipped here to Paris. A small castle."
Jean permitted himself to look startled. "Importing a building to Paris? From South America?"
"Just as London Bridge was transported to Arizona. Just as other buildings and monuments have been moved from place to place."
"The man’s mad," Jean decided, and shrugged.
"No, he isn’t," Eustace said, and paused to savor his lobster. So much better than the Tobacco and Artillery Club sole. "What Lynch has done," he went on, "he’s hollowed out a dozen stones, large building blocks from the outer walls of this castle, and he’s filled the hollow spaces with cash, jewels, stocks, his entire fortune. Then he’s disguised the openings so the stones look exactly as before. But inside them are valuables worth millions!"
"The rape of my people!" Lida announced, brandishing her bouillabaisse spoon.
Jean considered her thoughtfully. "Mm, yes," he said.
"Lida’s cousin," Eustace went on, "was one of the stone-masons on the project. He was sworn to secrecy, of course, but he told Lida the whole story."
"Before he disappeared," Lida said grimly.
"There’s millions in it, Jean," Eustace said.
"Mmmm," Jean said. Behind his dark eyes his brain could be seen ticking away faster than a taxicab meter in Milan. "One sees the possibilities," he acknowledged.
Lida, her expression and posture valiant, clutched Jean’s forearm to say, "You shall save my people from destitution!"
Jean looked at her askance. "What’s this?"
"Half," Eustace said, "That’s the arrangement I have with Lida."
"What arrangement?" Storm clouds were crossing Jean’s face now, and his moustache was at half mast.
"We take half the profit for our work and expenses," Eustace explained, "and the other half goes back to Yerbadoro with Lida." But simultaneously, behind Lida’s back, Eustace was briskly waving his hand back and forth, to let Jean know he was lying.
"Ah," Jean said, with a large nod and a small smile, "I see. Well, that sounds fair." To Lida, pouring on the charm, he said, "You are a stirring spokeswoman for your people."
Her response was violent: "I am a fiery furnace for my people!"
Taken aback, Jean retreated into his chair a few inches. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I can see that."
"Now," Eustace said. "The only problem is—"
"Of course there’s a problem," Rosa Palermo said. Stuffing scungilli and spaghetti into her mouth, she went on talking just the same: "There’s always a problem, Eustace."
"A small problem, Rosa," Eustace said, with a casual shrug of the shoulders and an airy gesture with his fingers. There was something about lunch at an outdoor restaurant on Rome’s Via Veneto that made him more than usually expressive with his body and his hands. "A minor problem," he said. "Nothing that need stop us."
Rosa, a hefty beauty in her mid-forties, aggressive and excitable, swigged down a mouthful of Bardolino and said, "Tell me about this problem, this minor problem."
"It’s nothing at all," Eustace assured her. He was aware of the male passerby frowning at him, wondering by what system of punishments and rewards a fellow like Eustace Dench deserved to be at table with such a fiery pair of beautiful women; so different from one another but both so desirable. "It’s merely," he said, "that we don’t know exactly which stones we want."
In sudden anger, Rosa flung her fork onto the table, sat back in her chair, squared her shoulders, aimed her breasts at Eustace, and said, "What? Then it’s useless, we can’t do a thing!"
"Of course we can—"
"You take me away from a perfectly fine shoplifting operation, you—"
"Rosa, Rosa, wait. It’s simple, really, I promise you it is."
"You promise me, do you?" Glaring mistrustfully, Rosa picked up her fork, stuck it into the spaghetti, bore down, and twisted. "Tell me about it," she said.
"We steal the entire castle."
"Steal—?" Rosa’s fork halted. She stared at Eustace’s smiling confident face, and slowly shook her head. "This girl," she said, with a quick glance at Lida, "has scrambled your brains."
"It can be done, Rosa," Eustace assured her. "You know me, you know my history, I only organize capers of the highest character."
Dubious, Rosa filled her mouth with spaghetti, and chewed. "A whole castle," she said.
"We need more help," Eustace told her. "That’s the only thing."
"Oh, yes," Rosa said. "Oh, surely."
"Think of it," Eustace said, leaning toward her, unmindful of his tie in the tomato sauce, "think of it. The best criminal brains in Europe, the masters, and each bringing in his own assistants."
Still dubious, Rosa pondered the idea, saying, "Who, for instance?"
"Well, you and me, of course. And from Germany, Herman Muller."
With a judicious nod, Rosa said, "Yes. Yes. I’ve heard of him."
Eustace checked the names off on his fingers. "From England," he said, "Sir Mortimer Maxwell."
"Sir Mortimer," Herman Muller said, "Yes, I worked with him once, in a counterfeiting scheme."
"A good man," Eustace said.
Herman, a skeleton-thin smooth and eerie man with a long pockmarked face, shrugged: "A trifle unsocial," he suggested.
"None of us is perfect," Eustace said, and peeled a slice from the large white radish on the side dish. Chewing it, swallowing it with a mouthful of beer, he returned his attention to his bratwurst. Here in the sunny tree-filled central courtyard of Munich’s Hofbräuhaus, he and Lida were lunching with their German connection.
Who now said, "Who else?"
"From France," Eustace said, around a pillow of bratwurst, "Jean LeFraque."
Herman considered. "I don’t think I know the name."
"A very good man," Eustace assured him. "He’s been working American widows recently, in a sort of semi-retirement, but he’s been responsible for some of the finest outrages in the files of the Sûreté."
"Widows can ruin a man for serious work," Herman said sternly. "Particularly American widows."
"You don’t have to worry about Jean."
Dispassionate, Herman said, "If you say so. Anyone else?"
"From Italy, Rosa Palermo."
Herman stopped with his beer stein halfway to his mouth. For the first time, a bit of color came into his cheeks. He said, "That madwoman?"
"Ah," Eustace said, with his blandest smile. "You’ve heard of her."
"Heard of her? On a clear night, you can hear her, the other side of the Alps."
"She’s a bit excitable," Eustace admitted, "but she’s the best."
Herman considered that, frowning, "The best? In Italy, you mean."
"That’s possible, I suppose," Herman said, and drank his beer.
"Then you’ll head the German contingent," Eustace told him, "and I will serve as liaison among the groups."
"Well, that’s the situation," Eustace said, smiling around at his guests. Here in the garden of his little château outside Zurich, with the high privet hedge to guarantee privacy, Eustace and Sir Mortimer Maxwell and Jean LeFraque and Herman Muller and Rosa Palermo and Lida Perez were seated around the white-painted iron lawn table, eating potato pancakes and drinking chablis. The sun shone down, the grass was a rich dark green, the mountains were comfortably massive above the privet hedge, the wine was good, the potato pancakes were as light as clouds, and Eustace basked in a glow of well-being. Not one of his first-choice assistants had turned him down, and he knew full well it wasn’t because the caper itself seemed such a sure thing, but because of him, his unarguable skill, his enviable reputation. Only Eustace Dench could pull off a heist of such magnitude! To steal an entire castle! Smiling, beaming, already feeling the warmth of the victory to come, he said, "Any questions...?"
Copyright © 1980 by Donald E. Westlake