The coarse fabric of the custodian uniform tears unevenly as I rip through the heavy shirt. I’m anxious for it to be gone, so I jerk it off my shoulders and toss it into a nearby bin to be collected with the other trash at dawn.
My Berluti dress shoes ring on the pavement as I stride along the back alley behind expensive high-rises on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. With a quick yank at the seams of the uniform pants, my costume is no more. I hurl them into another bin and continue on my way.
The satchel on my back is heavy, the mark of my success. I straighten the crisp white button-down I wore beneath the uniform and whistle lightly as I approach my street.
A well-planned heist is the ultimate high. The preparation can be intense, but if done well, the execution of a scheme is like caressing a woman — elegant and smooth.
Which reminds me. I’m due my usual celebratory prize.
As I turn the corner to the block with my building, I dial the familiar number.
“Sylvester here. How may I be of assistance?”
“Very good, sir. Your usual or something new?”
“Any girls with the old specifications? Red hair, bright green eyes, about twenty-five? Maybe going by Emerald?”
“Still haven’t seen that one. But I have many lovely women, sir.”
“All right. Same look as last time, but a different girl.”
“She will be there within the hour.”
I kill the call, my mind already on the night ahead. I nod at the doorman to the building, carefully ensuring that my face is captured by the camera. The alarm system for the private space that once held the swords will go off in about two hours, well after I was noted to be in my apartment, and after the call to Sylvester, should it be traced.
If the authorities are called, they will arrive at the scene of my crime while I’m in the arms of a woman who can testify, if needed, that I was quite occupied when the artifacts were stolen.
But most likely they won’t be. The swords were already stolen goods when I took them.
It’s a good plan. One of my best.
I walk toward the elevator bank as if I’m headed up to my apartment. But as I hit the dead spot in the video surveillance just to the left of the water fountain, I abruptly turn and move to the emergency stairs.
My heels ring again as I hurry down into the bowels of the building. I own much of this block, and only I have access to the hallway that connects this structure to the deli next door. Built below that modest shop is a bunker I’ve used for close to a decade, my private underground space for weapons, machinery, and the spoils of my trade that I’ve kept or still await their buyers.
I unlock a janitor’s closet and pass between two tall stacks of sad-looking boxes, sagging and torn. Just behind them I slide my hand against the wall to type in a code and press my palm to the scanner. The seemingly empty wall slides aside to reveal a tunnel. On the other end, a separate code and scan leads to a set of descending stairs.
Lights pop on as I travel underground, and my shoulders relax. I’m most certainly out of danger now. No one will even realize the swords are missing for hours. And by the time the fakes have been examined and falsified, another day will have passed.
I smile to myself as I approach the bunker door with a third code and scan. A perfect heist.
All is well inside. The bunker is sufficiently appointed to serve as a modest home if necessary, with a kitchen, living room, and alcove for a bed. I lay out the satchel on a table and remove the felt bundle.
The fabric unrolls with a clunk of metal. Carefully tucked in individual pockets are seven partial hilts of ancient swords. Each of them contains a rare jewel surrounded by gold work and lesser stones.
I lift the first. It is known as the Sword of Adventure, or sometimes, the Sword of the Red Hilt. It bears a ruby at its center and is rumored to have belonged to Sir Galahad before being passed on to Percivale.
The second sword is called Seure and belonged to Sir Lancelot. An enormous sapphire designates it as his.
The next sword, Galatine, belonged to Sir Gawaine and bears a bright emerald.
The Sword of the Strange Hangings has a more questionable history, perhaps also being wielded by Galahad, but possibly used by King David when he killed Goliath. It is decorated with a yellow diamond the size of an almond on its hilt.
The other three swords have no names or lineage, but based on their locations and level of preservation, plus telling engravings by the forgers, they are regarded as additional swords borne by the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table.
Some would call them priceless.
Nonsense. Everything has a price.
And the buyers are still bickering. I’ve already been offered $140 million for all seven swords. That number will likely go up once I prove that I possess them.
I roll the jeweled hilts back into their felt case and turn to the vault. Even I cannot open the door with a simple passcode, fingerprint, or retinal scan. It requires a series of actions, done in precise order, assessed by a virtual reality monitor.
And a key.
I love keys.
“Begin sequence,” I say to the door and move into place.
“Sequence in three, two, one.”
The first is sixteen beats of a tango, followed by four turns in a quickstep. Then American Sign Language fingerspelling the name of my late mother’s lovely sister who died young. Finally, a recitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Love Is Not All.”
And only my voice will do.
“Sequence complete,” the voice says, and the vault door light shifts from red to green.
Even then, if you hurry and open the door too quickly, a delay in the timer will shut the door once you go in and lock you inside. No one has ever gotten that far, but then, my success has continued to grow. One day, probably not too far off, someone will try to penetrate my bunker.
If they ever learn it exists.
I wait the prescribed amount of time and remove the ancient key from my breast pocket. It is made of forged iron and is rumored to have opened the gate to one of the hidden crypts of the Illuminati.
I love items with a mysterious history.
It slides in with a satisfying click, and the vault door swings open. I lift the collection of sword hilts and head inside the vault. My gaze falls on some of my favorite objects, those I have been reluctant to sell.
One of my beloved prizes is a tiara worn by the great Alexandra Romanov, the last Tsarina of Russia and mother to the mysterious Anastasia. Many of her crown jewels were sold at auction in the wake of the revolution.
I hadn’t bought this one, of course, but stole it during a fox hunt on an estate in Germany. It’s unlikely that the family there, so used to their surroundings littered with great and beautiful objects, even noticed I replaced it with a Disney princess crown.
I also have an ancient chalice rumored to have been the favorite of King Henry the VIII. I occasionally bring it out for a cup of wine, just for kicks.
The jeweled swords will reside inside a safe within the vault. Once they are tucked away, I head out of the vault and secure it carefully. My date for the evening will arrive soon, and I would like to be prepared for her upstairs.
What a fine, fine evening to be alive.