I was staring at the pool by the stern when she shrieked.
I pressed my fingers to my temples, waiting for the ringing in my ears to die down. How I hadn’t gotten used to Sophie’s random squeals was in itself chafing, especially as I’d been her servant a whole twenty-two days. Normally that was enough time for me to adapt.
‘Well?’ came a man's gruff voice, this time from close by. My head jerked to the right. Chef Kojo stood there, his crinkled brows hooding already sunken eyes. ‘Go!’
Biting back a sigh, I hurried down the hatch and to the VIP suite, where I guessed the noise was coming from. There she was, in her luxurious cabin, her rear end just touching the plush oak and leather seat, one fist jabbing the air maniacally.
‘It’s coming, Edna!’ Her excited eyes met mine, her whole body bouncing with the announcement. ‘They’re bringing it! Tonight!’
A few buffalo galloped within my left breast. ‘What are they bringing?’
‘The sceptre.’ It was he who answered, the man they called Robert. He hovered over her, like he had since we got on the yacht, his left forefinger stroking the hair off her forehead to the back of her ear. She leaned into his touch, her eyes fluttering shut. ‘We just received the letter.’
‘See!’ Sophie held up the over-bright screen of her phone in my direction. I squinted at the tiny words. I recognized the letterhead of the Cruche du Prince Art Gallery, and as I read, the buffalo got so wild I feared my audience would hear them.
…the sceptre of Otumfuor Ohene-Gyan IV will be delivered to your yacht on the seventeenth…
I blinked. Today!
My gaze peeling away from the screen, I managed a smile I hoped was regular. ‘I’m happy for you, ma’am,’ I said, the gears in my head kicking into overdrive.
‘I know! Isn’t it amazing?’ She jumped out of her seat. ‘I want it here,’ she said, pointing at a vast glass display box attached to the paneled wood wall. ‘Or, no, I want it here,’ she said, swiveling, her eyes on the mantel of the artificial fireplace. ‘Or, ooh, I don’t know.’ She pinched the bridge of her nose, and I pinched myself to keep from rolling my eyes. ‘What do you think, honey?’
Robert laughed. ‘Sweetheart.’ He lay one hand on the small of her back. ‘You had an entire room converted to host the thing, remember?’
‘Oh! Yes, I did! I did indeed!’ She turned on her heel—a commendable feat, considering it was a pencil heel of the thinnest variety—and aimed a megawatt smile my way. ‘We’ll put it in the room.’ After delivering her announcement, the final two words bearing more emphasis than necessary, she grabbed Robert’s hand and pulled him toward the door. ‘Let’s go make sure everything’s ready.’
They made their way past me, and he held my stare for a second too long before exiting. Perhaps I was being unnecessarily paranoid, but there was an air about Robert that said he had something to hide. He stared at things too long. He glided, and even my trained ears couldn’t pick up the sound of his footsteps. He never left Sophie’s side. Scatterbrained darling that she was, it surprised me little that she trusted him. Then again, she trusted me too. I, who was disappearing once I had my hands on that sceptre.
It arrived at half-past six. A chopper delivered it, landing on the helipad for five minutes, during which a man who managed both to gush over Sophie and look down his nose at everyone else, presented a yellow-fringed, purple velvet pillow, the sceptre on it.
My eyes didn’t widen. They didn’t need to. I’d studied that work of art long enough to recognize it in my sleep. It was a silver sphere, three inches in diameter, with a ring of amethysts and emeralds marking the circumference. Perpendicular to the markings, a pair of golden rods the length of a thumb shot out from opposite ends, tapering into narrow triangles.
A layer of gooseflesh that had little to do with the chilly night air ambushed me. What I’d give to run my fingers over those stones.
‘Boy, if I had that,’ I heard Kojo whisper. ‘All that money.’ Maybe he wasn’t aware he was within earshot. Otherwise, he was proud that his voice could simultaneously carry so much wistfulness and greed.
Colin, the other servant aboard the Pacific Lady, stepped forward to do his part of the undertaking—receive the pillow and take it to The Room, while Sophie uttered half-hearted goodbyes to the man who’d brought the sceptre, her attention on the servant. Soon enough, her feet led her after him, and the rest of us followed. ‘My fortress,’ was Sophie’s shrill hiss, as Colin led the way to the sceptre’s new resting place.
When we got to the door, Sophie turned to give her audience another dazzling smile. Then she faced a scanner on the wall next to the door. A thin strip of blue light emerged from it, roaming her face. After two tense beats, the silver door slid open. ‘Ahh, yes,’ she said, stepping into the room, Colin behind her.
I stared into the enclosure. Underwhelming was the word that came to mind. What looked like a short, gray metal column stood in the centre of it, and there Sophie directed Colin to place the pillow. The deed done, Sophie clapped her hands thrice. ‘Out, everyone.’
We did as commanded. So far the retinal scanner was the only thing I couldn’t beat. Still, if I pumped a few drinks into Sophie—
We were outside the room now, Sophie closest to it. She held a tablet, and into it punched a combination of keys. Suddenly, a transparent cylinder whooshed down from the ceiling, slicing through the air till it touched the metal column on which the sceptre rested. With a single twisting motion, it clicked shut, encasing its treasure. Strips of red light sauntered across the room. Sophie grinned. ‘Retinal scanner, pressure-sensitive floors, motion sensors—this room is a fortress.’
Kojo echoed my sentiments. ‘It is.’
I was taking stock of my bad luck when I heard footsteps.
We’d been on the yacht for a week. My ears had needed six days less than that to distinguish the sounds even through the walls. Water sloshing on the bottom of the boat. Muffled groans and delighted giggles from the master bedroom. Footsteps along the corridors. Where they led. Whose they were.
These footfalls were light and hurried, with an obvious attempt, though not a good one, to be quiet. Sophie sashayed like a princess with abandon. Robert floated. Colin was heavyset. That left one person.
I flung the covers off—I hadn’t been able to sleep anyway, my mind whirring with possible ways to hack a retinal scanner—and pushed my feet into slippers. Kojo wasn’t the easiest man to understand, but the greedy glare in his eye had intensified since the arrival of the sceptre. He could be making plans to get it himself, and I’d be damned if I let a mere servant get to the sacred object before I did.
I felt under my unused pillow for a familiar object, picked it up, and shoved it into the pocket of my trousers, just in case.
Quiet as I could be, I unlocked the door to my cabin and looked down the well-lit walkway. He’d been heading right. Of course. Right led to Sophie’s special room with all its crazy effects. There were no shadows to hide in, so I took quick, silent steps nearer to the room. Subtle hints of fish lingered in the atmosphere, reinforcing my belief that the chef was the one who’d dashed by.
My eyes narrowed. Could Kojo have figured out a hack? Because surely he wasn’t stupid enough to try to force open the door. It would set off a dozen alarms!
When I reached The Room, I had to grip the wall behind me to stay standing on my suddenly wobbly feet.
The door was open.
My heart rate fought to return to normal. It. Couldn’t. Be. I knew Sophie locked the door to her cabin, and while lock picking was a skill I excelled at, it was still a little early to get in and try to get the tablet; by now she’d still be awake, lounging in the afterglow of post-coital bliss. Taking bold steps closer, nearing the pulsing glow of white light emanating from the doorway, I tried to quell the thought that the other reason I hadn’t broken into her room yet—the bigger reason—was the pair of hawk-like eyes that belonged to—
Robert’s head snapped up. He was impeccably dressed, as usual, in a dark suit, like I hadn’t heard him working hard in Sophie’s room minutes before. His right hand froze above a glowing white tablet. ‘Oh, hi there, Edna. Care to join me?’
I leaned my shoulder against the doorjamb, my left hand on my waist. ‘What are you doing here?’ A burst of smugness broke out in my innards. Now I knew why I’d considered him shady. He was a thief.
He looked back down at the tablet, his fingers mobile again. ‘Planting maize, Ed. What does it look like?’
‘I should get Sophie.’
He laughed. ‘Or you could just go to bed, and let’s both zip it about tonight, hm?’ His head tipped backward as the glass cylinder twisted, and shot back up into the ceiling. ‘I mean, think about it,’ he said, eyes on me. ‘You’re the servant. I’m the boss’s lover. Who’s she going to believe if we both start singing?’
‘Why did you do it?’ I asked, entering the room, keeping my steps slow when what I wanted to do was lunge at the sceptre and disappear into the night. That wasn’t how I’d planned to take it, but since this was the opportunity presenting itself… ‘How did you do it?’ If I kept him distracted enough I could—
‘Easily.’ He chuckled. ‘She trusts me.’ His shrug had a note of helplessness. ‘She made me the only other person who can access this room. And the why?’ He looked down at the glittering sceptre and sighed. ‘Let’s just say I’ll have a better use for this than she will.’
I snorted. Anyone would have a better use for the sceptre than Sophie. She only wanted another trinket in her collection, something more for the already massive assortment of art pieces she had in her home, to hold her fancy till she forgot about it in her search for the next big thing.
I watched with bated breath as he plucked the sceptre from its velvety nook and held it at eye level, turning it slowly. The precious stones caught the light and winked. Slivers of white-hot electricity slithered up my legs. ‘Well,’ I said, taking one step back, ‘you’re going to have to fight me for it.’
One of his brows crept up. ‘Wh— Oof!’
My leg flew up, my foot catching him below his chin. He lost his footing, thudded against the ground, while I snatched the airborne sceptre. The stones pressed into my palm even more snugly than I had imagined they would.
I savoured the moment for a whole second before I found myself doubling over after a sharp kick to my left shin. I lost my grip on the sceptre, and it hurtled through the air. ‘Ah!’ I grunted, when my knees and palms collided with the cold floor, shock jolts snaking up my joints.
He seized the sceptre before it hit the ground. ‘I’ll take that, thanks,’ Robert said, and after a triumphant grin, he fled.
Ignoring the sting in my knees, I scurried to my feet and broke into a run, following him. I’d come too far, planned and pined too long, to let another like me get my loot and bolt with it. He’d have to be in excellent shape to outrun me.
And, I noticed, expelling controlled breaths through rounded lips, Robert was in excellent shape. His run was flawless, his arms and legs pumping just enough to propel himself further out of reach, while he rounded corners in graceful strides, his coattails hardly flapping. The map of the yacht stretched out before my mind’s eye as we descended stairs and got on another corridor. He was headed to the final fleet of stairs before the amphibious car.
The whiz of a door as it flung open on the right caught me by surprise. It caught Robert by even greater surprise, for he failed to duck out of the way and received the full impact of twenty pounds of sweeping wood smack in the face. ‘Aah!’ he screamed, crumpling to the floor. I jumped, less from sympathy for him than from how feminine his yell was.
I slowed to a jog and stopped when I reached him, crouching to lay my fingers against his neck, my other hand going into my pocket. He didn’t flinch, but the garbled words he was spewing said he wasn’t out cold either.
‘What’s going on?’
The scent of fish pricked my nostrils before I looked up. Kojo stood there, eyes like painted on saucers, his left hand gripping the knob of the door that had delivered the sucker punch, so tightly his knuckles were white. ‘Robert,’ I said breathily, standing up. ‘He was—’
‘Oh Robert, Robert darling.’ We both turned in the direction of the sound of sing-song calling. ‘Love? Where are you?’ Sophie was out of bed, possibly coming down the stairs. Sure enough, she appeared on the corridor before long. ‘Robert dear—oh.’ She stopped when she saw us, a furrow appearing between her brows, and she swept along the corridor toward us. ‘What’s going—Robert!’ Her hands flew to cup her mouth when she saw the man sprawled on the ground at my feet. ‘What happened to him? Why are you—’ Her gaze darted between Kojo and me, her lower lip sagging. ‘What did you do to him?’
‘We caught him,’ I said quickly. If I didn’t speak before Robert was lucid, the story could switch up fast. ‘He stole the sceptre. He was running away and we chased him. He tripped and fell.’ I turned eager eyes to Kojo, whose still mirrored shock. ‘Right, Kojo?’
‘R-right, right,’ he said, nodding quickly enough to bring a bobblehead to envy.
I nodded, my lips pressed together, and turned back to Sophie. She stared at the body sprawled on the floor. ‘Robert?’ One sandaled foot reached out from within her floor-length frilly night robe and poked his side gingerly. ‘Is this true?’
More unintelligible sounds drifted out the man’s mouth. ‘You should check his pocket,’ I offered, most helpfully.
My boss momentarily forgot she was the one supposed to give the orders. She bent down and did as I said. Her hand pulled away with the shiny sceptre. ‘The bastard!’ Her face contorted in fury. ‘And here I thought we had something! Ugh! I should feed him to the sharks!’
She didn’t feed him to the sharks. She did, however, keep him locked in one of the plainer rooms on the yacht, to be handed over to the police when we docked in the morning. The last I saw of that sceptre was Sophie snatching it and breezing off to her room with it, to be kept in a place she didn’t tell us.
I left her employ before we got to her house, thanks to the ‘phone call that informed me of my guardian’s sudden illness.’ Drama queen that she was, Sophie fussed, and for a moment even I almost believed she was sad to see me go.
I checked into a hostel and wasted no time getting to my room, taking the steps two at a time. Excitement bubbled within me, thick and frothy. The handle of my suitcase burned in my palm. I’d done it. I’d stolen the bloody sceptre. I’d removed the fake from my pocket and replaced it with the original from Robert’s, just before Kojo and Sophie turned up. Just a few steps more, and I’d be alone with it. But not for too long. I couldn’t make money off it if I kept it.
Once inside, I locked the door to my room and lugged the suitcase onto the bed. My fingers worked in double time to unzip it. I pulled out the purple case I’d kept the sceptre in, ready to behold the splendor of glinting gems and shiny metal and start reveling in all the millions it would fetch me.
In the black cavity of the case was a miniature snow globe.
‘No!’ My throat began to parch, my hands flying to the suitcase to see if there was a chance I’d put it somewhere else. ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ How had this happened? Who could have even found out that I had the real sceptre? I hadn’t dared to let the bag out of my sight all morning! I flung the suitcase to the side, rage stewing within me. Who could have—
Faint notes of fish pierced my senses as I grabbed the snow globe. I gasped.