Celia turned on her Anne Klein Fabulist heel, pulling the pink Angela Roi handbag closer to her body with the stolen golden dreidel, which took up most of the mini tote. It weighed her down, and she winced at the tinge of sciatica as she trotted down the stairs doing her best imitation of a woman of means on a mission.
By now the pursuit should have burned off, but her heart was still beating fast. Her plan had been to do the grab in the Penberthy Park Hotel before anyone knew what had happened and then get lost in the mall. But the crowds she depended on weren’t there. And why weren’t they? She felt a bit aggrieved at the fecklessness of Memphis holiday shoppers. Didn’t they know that the shops depended on their customers? Were they all home shopping on Amazon? Shame on them! No civic pride.
She reached the bottom of the stairs, almost bumping into a handsome, red-haired man with generous lips. He bowed formally and held the door for her as she walked outside. The cold, wet evening air smelled of fried catfish and dirty feet. She took a deep breath and promised that she would fill her body and soul with fried everything once this was over. For now, a restaurant on Main seemed like a bad idea. She needed a quiet place to examine the dreidel, and then she needed to stash it somewhere safe.
She looked down Main Street as strains of a guitar and a man singing the last few stanzas of “Silent Night” hung on the cold air. Someone was playing outside in this weather. She shuddered in sympathy.
She reached in her bag and her fingers brushed against the dreidel, still warm from the hotel but cooling in the December air. She wrapped her fingers around the four-sided top, feeling the comforting weight for a moment and considered the ten priceless pounds of platinum and gold, about the size of a coffee cup, weighing down her purse. She wished she dared pull it from her bag. She traced the Hebrew letters, her finger landing on the gimel at first. A bit of good luck, she thought as she felt the ornate platinum raised along the side of the smooth gold. Gimel meant she was winning this game. As she looked up and down the street for the musician, she spotted a sign for the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art straight ahead.
She chuckled. What better place to view the objets d’art than a quiet place dedicated to art itself? Virtually no one came to this museum, and she’d spent hours there relaxing with the art when life became too intense. She pulled her bag tight against her body and walk/ran across the street, spotting the musician as she did. He wore a blue-and-orange Memphis Tigers knit hat and leaned against the red stone wall. He’d just finished “Silent Night” and was now playing a warbled version of “Jingle Bells.”
The frigid air penetrated Celia’s wool coat, and she shivered. Her forehead creased as she looked at him. He must be freezing. Just a jacket and a knit hat. A few bills were lying in the guitar case. She found her wallet at the bottom of her purse underneath the dreidel, extricated it, and pulled out two twenties.
She dropped one twenty into the man’s guitar case as she walked past.
“Thanks for the music,” she said. “You are doing God’s work. Stay warm.”
“Bless you. Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas.” She allowed a moment of regret that it was never Happy Hanukkah, but reminded herself that good thieves do not stand out. And that sometimes they were invisible. Something she should work on.
She slipped past the banner advertising a display of World Dreidels at the Belz Gallery and walked through the glass theater-style doors into the dimly lit entrance. Inside, the air was quiet, aseptic. Marble floors gleamed as if they had just been cleaned. It was almost too quiet. But it was perfect.
Tickets were sold in the gift shop. There was a place where someone used to sit to check that everyone entering the museum had paid, but it was no longer staffed. Budget cuts and the sad fact that almost no one knew of this place. Unscrupulous people could simply walk in without tickets. Celia shook her head at those who didn’t pony up to support this little treasure and headed for the gift shop.
Nancy, an older woman with dark skin and hair, looked up from her task of adding prices to tiny Chinese tea sets. She brightened in recognition. “Celia! How are you doing? Haven’t seen you for a while.”
“It’s been a year of Sundays. How is your new granddaughter?” Celia mentally flipped through her mental filing cabinet. Ah, yes. “Delores?”
“I wish I had your memory. I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached, I’m so distracted.”
Celia handed over the twenty. “You were so happy and your pictures were so sweet. How could I forget? How is Delores?”
“Dee Dee is what they are calling her now. She’s naughtier than a bag of imps, and more adorable than a basket of puppies. Santa is going to have a heck of a time deciding what to give her.” Nancy held up the ticket. “Anything else?”
Celia scooped up six small, multicolored dreidels from the store’s display and put them on the counter. “Sure, give me some of the dreidels. My nieces will love those.”
Nancy wrapped each dreidel in a bit of tissue paper as if it were a rare piece of glassware rather than a cheap plastic toy and placed each carefully in a museum bag. She handed the bag along with the ticket to Celia and vaguely motioned in the gallery’s direction. “Happy Hanukkah, Celia!”
“Merry Christmas and extra kisses for Dee Dee.”
Celia felt her heart rate slow and her breathing deepen as she walked through the moon gate into the Asian gallery. She stroked the cool, smooth jade of the eight-foot-tall vases as she passed. She entered the pagoda room. A pagoda model rose from carpeted floor almost to the ceiling. The model dwarfed Celia who stood for a moment staring into the complex still life captured within, transfixed by the miniature world of Qing Dynasty monks engaged in their daily religious work. She could almost smell the incense in the miniature scene, though the air of the museum was artificial, as free from incense as it was from the peculiar wet mildewed smell of Memphis’s air.
She shifted the heavy bag to the other shoulder and knelt down with a sharp twinge from her aching back. Her long brown hair brushed against the wood of the pagoda as she stroked a finger along the fine wood. She considered where to go. Normally, no one was nearby, which is what made this place perfect.
She caught a bit of movement in the mirror and moved away, hiding from a potential witness.
Frustrating! She had come here because no one else did. She needed to be alone, surrounded by beauty and quiet to view the dreidel. In her fantasies she lived here surrounded by these treasures. She almost wanted to steal everything, from the giant monkey god statue to the smallest miniature monk in the pagoda and installed it in her home. She could even picture how she would do the job.
She wouldn’t steal from the Belz. There was something delightfully naive about this tiny museum with its precious carved jade flowers and ships, its collection of Chinese puppets, and the intricate miniature scenes, like this pagoda but with only one guard who spent half his time in the gift shop rather than the exhibits. No one else worked here except a curator and a part-time assistant staffing the gift shop. Celia knew the location of all the cameras. It was a small trusting place, and it felt like home. Celia came here to get clean again, to wash away the larceny. To be alone with her conscience and allow it to heal in the presence of the sacred Buddhist and Jewish art.
She saw the shadow of the other visitor again. He moved too fast for someone admiring the art. He bent forward, moving with purpose. Looking for someone, she thought. Move on, Celia. You’re too exposed.
She turned left through the moon arch that was the main entrance to the Asian art gallery. She headed down the corridor into the Judaic art gallery. Her heels clicked on the marble floors as she passed a bright red hanfu robe with embroidered white cranes protected inside a plexiglass enclosure. She disciplined her gaze and focused on making it to the Judaica before the man saw her. The museum moved the textiles around sometimes and often a surprise met her gaze. She wished she had more time today.
She slid into exhibit space that housed the Judaica. While the Asian art was intricate and brightly colored, the Judaica struck a more somber note when taken as a whole. Large dark bronze friezes of moments in Jewish history took up a large section of the floor and the lights were dimmer in here. Even the air smelled heavier, as if it bent to the weight of the history.
A shimmering tinsel floor-to-ceiling menorah beckoned from the special exhibit space. It was the dreidel exhibit, and unlike the dim interior of the serious Judaic art installations, this was brightly lit.
She grinned, drawn by the colorful sign in the same Crayola colors as the dreidels in the gift shop. It said “Dreidels Through History.” What better place to examine a dreidel.
She looked around, but no one was there, so she pulled the large golden dreidel out of her handbag and stared at it. It was lovely, golden with shimmering gems outlining the Hebrew letters. Shin, hey, nun, and gimel. Gimel and hey, the letters for winners of the game were outlined in rubies. Shin was embedded with onyx. And the nun was marked with diamonds. She stroked her fingers along the smooth metal.
“Ma’am, please put the dreidel back in the exhibit.” It was the even feminine voice of a middle-aged African American guard. Where was Reggie? He’d been the guard here forever.
“Ma’am.” The guard put her hand on her holster. The woman looked solid and implacable, like a prison guard Celia once met.
Celia shuddered. Sliding like butter through her mind were all the tenable options and their likely consequences. Invisibility, she reminded herself. Fit in. Or be found out.
She brought her hand to her heart and gasped. “Oh my! I surely didn’t mean to do anything wrong. It was just so beautiful.”
The guard nodded, her gaze steely. Celia looked over the display and put the dreidel down amongst a pile of others. “This is such a fascinating collection. How did the museum acquire it?”
The guard started to explain when the most adorable man Celia had ever seen walked into the room. He had long wiry muscles, the face of an angel, red hair, and deep green eyes that she wished she could lay on a beach for hours staring into. She smiled at him and he nodded back formally.
It came to her then. This was the man from Penberthy Mall. He was the one who opened the door for her. Her gaze lingered on his full lips, thinking how they would feel pressed against her own. She licked her own lips then dropped her gaze when she realized what she’d done. Oh, now this was ridiculous. Here she was with a hot dreidel, in danger of discovery, and suddenly she couldn’t think of anything but stolen kisses? She blushed and turned to a picture of children gathered around a giant wooden dreidel labeled “World’s Largest Dreidel” pretending to be fascinated by it.
Green Eyes turned to the guard, giving her a hundred-watt smile that caused an irrational note of jealousy to arise in Celia as she watched from slitted eyes.
“Fascinating,” he said. “The symbols are quite interesting. Do all the dreidels have the same ones?”
The guard beamed at him, which transformed her face from stern to lively. This woman had a passion for art, Celia realized. That was why she’d taken the job here. Celia wasn’t sure she could ever truly feel comfortable with the guard, but she immediately liked her better. Art lovers should be treasured wherever they are found.
“Yes, sir. The Hebrew letters, nun, gimel, hey, and shin stand for the phrase Nes gadol haya sham—a great miracle happened there. We also have a dreidel rescued from the wreckage of the Great Choral Synagogue in Riga, burned by the Nazis in 1941, in our Holocaust room. It is on temporary loan from Israel. Come this way and I’ll show you.”
The guard gave Celia a stern, suspicious look, so she trailed after, trying her best to look like just another art lover. Which was maddening! She was an art lover. This was her museum. Well, not fully hers, she supposed. But still. The unfairness of this made her frown as the guard droned on about the Holocaust, which was not Celia’s favorite topic at any rate.
It was another twenty minutes before the guard finally decided that Celia wasn’t a threat to the museum and allowed her to move around in peace. The possessor of the lovely green eyes had disappeared soon after viewing the Holocaust dreidel. He winked at Celia and slipped out into the main exhibit hall. She missed him, which was just not rational. She should be glad he was gone.
To avoid suspicion, she visited the Asian exhibits before meandering back to the dreidel room an hour later. She looked around. No guard. Good!
She let herself in and went to the pile of dreidels where she’d placed the golden dreidel.
Her heart beat faster as she rummaged through the exhibit. But there was nothing for it. Someone had stolen the dreidel from her. Her mind returned to the green-eyed stranger. Was it him?
A clunk and the heavy door shut behind her.
“Hands up. Turn around,” a rich masculine voice said.
She raised her hands and turned. The man who greeted her was fat with pustules on his face and hands wearing brown pants held up by suspenders over a substantial belly. He looked like he was part frog. More critically, he was holding a gun.
Everything slowed way down. It wasn’t the first time she’d faced a gun or even the twentieth, but it never felt ok. Celia smiled at the plug-ugly and as she did so, she realized that he looked familiar. Recently, familiar. Someone from the Penberthy? Yes. At the hotel. Who was he? She sorted the mental filing cabinet in her brain but came up dry.
She made her voice calm, lazy, sophisticated. “Perhaps you have the wrong person? You surely don’t mean me? Here?”
He poked his gun in her direction, which was an intriguing invitation. If she were closer, could she grab it? She inched closer.
His voice was surprisingly smooth. It didn’t go with the rest of him. “Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
“Don’t make me—”
The door clattered opening a crack, and causing the plug-ugly to jump away. Celia sent up a brief prayer thanking God for the museum guard. Truly, God protects those who blunder like children. She promised God that she would be more careful next time and that she would give extra to the Hadassah drive for a new nurses training center in Haifa.
“Hello there, did I leave my—”
It was the handsome green-eyed stranger again. He looked at her strangely and then at the man with the gun. After a terrible pause the stranger said, “Celia, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”
He walked heedlessly past the man, ignoring the gun waving around as if unsure of who to target. He gave her a little hug scented with masculine cologne and honest male musk, which she was only slightly distracted by. Promise. Just a tiny bit.
“Come on, Celia. We’ll be late for Uncle Hamlin’s party.”
Celia smiled gamely up into those eyes. “Oh, Uncle Hamlin! I’d forgotten. So, sorry Mr. er…whoever you are. Can’t be late for Uncle Hamlin.” She gave one longing glance at the table where the golden dreidel should have been but apparently wasn’t, dammit, and let herself be escorted out. Once they were standing in front of the museum, in the bitter cold air, she moved away from her rescuer. The musician was gone.
“Thanks,” she said. “I didn’t catch your name. You seem to know mine.”
His eyes glittered like emeralds. “I do know your name, Celia L. Mittelman, previously Celia Reis. I know quite a bit about you. But you are right. I have no manners. My name is Sebastian. Please do join me for dinner.” He pulled an envelope out of his coat pocket and handed it to her. “Think of it as an invitation to learn more about me and a wonderful opportunity.”
“Tonight? A date?”
“And so much more. I promise you will not regret it.” His tongue flicked out to wet his lips. An unconscious response, Celia thought, but it made him look like a satisfied cat licking the last bit of cat food from his dish. He buttoned his coat, a stylish brown wool number that emphasized his slender waist, and made him look like the world’s most upscale private eye. She wondered who he was. What he was.
The envelope turned out to have a picture of her in front of the golden dreidel in the Penberthy and an address of a restaurant she’d never heard of. She stared for a long time at her photo. You couldn’t tell that she was in the process of stealing the golden dreidel. Could you? Was he a blackmailer?
Damn! Wouldn’t that just be today’s lousy luck? Well, she would see about turning the tables on him.
She added a few special tools to her bag and dressed in her most distracting, take-me-now little black dress and put her hair up with a pair of twisted metal hair sticks that could be weapons if the situation demanded. She hoped he wasn’t a blackmailer. A thief would be fine, but blackmailers were dreadful people who trafficked in human misery and shame.
She found the restaurant tucked into an underground set of shops near the Big Muddy on Front Street near the Cotton Museum. The restaurant itself required walking underneath an area that had once been a warehouse truck parking area. Now it was used for outdoor tables for the Bone In Grill. No one was eating outdoors. Celia didn’t blame them, the cold air rose moist from the Mississippi making the air feel colder than freezing.
As she walked into the dimly lit restaurant and waited for her eyes to adjust, a rush of garlic, spices, and fried fish met her nostrils. She sighed feeling the hollow ache in her midsection. She was suddenly starving.
A maître d’ took her coat and guided her through the shadowy room past a small area with round wooden tables occupied by elegant women and large men drinking and eating from tiny dishes. He brought her to a booth with a red curtain trimmed with a Greek key pattern that had been tucked up and left her with Sebastian.
“Hello, Sebastian. I see that you are something of a photographer.” She patted her hair, checking that everything was in place. One of her jeweled hair pins dropped from her nervous fingers and clinked to the tile.
May as well take advantage of that mistake. As she retrieved it from the floor, she inspected the case he’d brought with him. An expensive Italian leather job with its flap open just enough to see a familiar glint of gold nestled within the leather walls of the case. She felt his eyes upon her so she memorized the dreidel’s location, then rose and placed the photo in front of him.
He shook his head. “Not my work. If it were, it would be a much nicer photo. You’d be smiling. And perhaps dressed in that delightful outfit you have on tonight.” His gaze travelled down her body with appreciation. “You are beautiful.”
She blushed fiercely and slid across the smooth fabric of the booth opposite him. “You are not the photographer? Then who?” And why do you have it, she didn’t ask.
“Not me. I rescued this photo of you from the security office of the hotel. I thought you might like it.” His grin conveyed secret knowledge.
She froze. He was a cop. Damn. Those eyes. No cop should be allowed to be that sexy.
“A bit sloppy, Celia, don’t you think?”
She took a deep breath, feeling her blood pounding in her ears.
A waiter arrived at that moment with an open bottle of wine and two red wine goblets. She was grateful for the reprieve. He poured a small bit for Sebastian to try. Sebastian swirled it in the glass before taking a sip, his eyes closing in the way of a wine connoisseur.
In the moment his attention was focused on the wine, she pushed her bag near his briefcase and slid the dreidel the short distance to her bag. She felt the familiar thrill of the chase, the too rapid heartbeat, the arousal tickling her senses like a lover’s lips against her nipples. The dreidel secured, she leaned closer to him, watching him, aware of her own rapid breath and that she looked like a woman besotted, though with theft or with him, she didn’t know herself.
After Sebastian’s silent assent, the waiter poured a glass of purple wine for each of them.
Sebastian smiled and raised his wine glass. “To a fortunate bit of theft.”
“To theft. Of photos, of course.” She pulled her bag to her lap, and smiled up at him, slowly taking her glass of wine and looking over the glass into his smug grin.
“Photos, of course. You are good, Celia. Damned good. But you are getting sloppy. Someone is watching you, you know. But I can help you with that.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I see. You are a white knight for what? Of thieves? Is that what you think I am?”
He ignored this and reached into his briefcase, pulling out a FedEx envelope, placing it on the table then rummaged around further. “I have a present and a proposition for you.”
“Presents are my love language,” she purred. She took a sip of the wine, a good Oregon Pinot Noir. Nice. She pulled the dreidel into her lap, caressing the familiar metal as she waited him out. She savored the taste of the dark berries and vanilla in the pinot noir.
“Where is it? One moment.” He ducked down and looked beneath the table.
She brought the golden dreidel up and held it in both her hands, feeling its cool weight against her palms again. It was magnificent. The platinum Hebrew letters glowed in the dim light against the gold body as if they burned with divine light. It should have been gaudy, but it wasn’t. Like any piece of art, the whole transcended the parts. The treasure smelled lightly of the mint gum and cologne from her bag. It smelled like her. Like it had always been meant for her. Her heart felt heavy when she reminded herself she would need to give this to the client tomorrow. Such things were wasted on most clients.
Sebastian sounded puzzled. “I don’t know what happened…” He came to upright and saw the shimmering golden bauble in her hands.
She settled back into the booth with exaggerated casualness, enjoying his disconcerted look.
“You know it isn’t a present if you steal it from the one who has it only to return it to her. You understand that, right?” she said.
She laughed, cuddling the beautiful dreidel to her breast then dropped it back into her purse. She stood up, wove her fingers through his hair, far silkier than any man’s hair had a right to be, and pulled him to her lips. It was a deep, long kiss and at the end she heard him sigh. “I understand, love. Stolen kisses taste sweeter than any other kind.” She kissed him once more, savoring the taste of wine on his lips and thinking of how nice it would be to have more than a little taste. But best to leave before his compatriots arrived.
“I’ll think on it.” She took the envelope from the table and peered into his beautiful eyes. “I hope you’ve left your number in this envelope because I want a second date.”
He stood up, took her in his arms and this time the kiss was electrifying. She felt it clear down to her bellybutton.
“Second date,” she gasped as he let her go.
“Mmmhmm. You’re right. Stolen kisses are sweet. I’ll call you.”