By Debra Goldstein
Peter Wabbit wanted a carat. Not just one carat, twenty to be exact. As he walked through the Louvre’s Gallerie D’Apollon, he merely glanced at the peached colored Hortensia diamond before going to stand before the case housing the white 140.5 carat Regent diamond. Too many carats. Too ostentatious for his taste.
He stared at the custom-made vitrine in which the Regent was displayed, knowing that when the museum had the cases in the Gallerie D’Apollon redesigned, fiber-optic lighting and more sophisticated alarm systems were installed. It made sense. After all, these cases held the French Crown Jewels.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Peter?”
Peter jerked his head in the direction of the woman’s voice. He hadn’t heard the uniformed security guard come up behind him. “I agree, but I think it’s a little too big to reset as an engagement ring, Gwen.”
Gwen held up her left hand. Together they looked at her long-tapered fingers.
“I guess you’ll just have to settle for something more mundane,” Peter said.
“And find someone to give it to me.”
He felt a warm sensation rise up his neck. Not only had his mother saddled him with the name Peter to go with the last name of Wabbit, but he’d also gotten his tendency to easily blush from her. At least she’d shared her knowledge of how to pick any lock with him. Watching his mother fade away slowly during her last illness, Peter had learned patience. He didn’t particularly miss her, but occasionally he acknowledged the skills he’d gained from her—the ones that made him one of the best diamond thieves in the world.
His heists were planned with precision. He didn’t just break into jewelry stores and grab whatever was in the showcase. Rather, he specialized in high end diamonds. Consequently, he immersed himself in every detail of a job before executing it.
Two years ago, when Peter decided the five-sided Hortensia diamond was his next target, he managed to get himself hired in the finance department of the museum. Between his skill with languages and the pedigree background he created for his resume, Peter was the perfect choice for his mid-level job. His pasty skin, non-descript features, and hair that matched his thick-rimmed black framed glasses, let him blend in with the other bookkeepers, but his Peter Wabbit name was unforgettable.
People, especially Gwen, were used to seeing him spend his lunch hour in the gallery peering at the jewels and the Louis IV precious stone vases. Periodically, he took one of the museum’s guided tours. Peter also knew exactly how many steps and how much time it took to get out of each Louvre exit, walk to either the Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre Métro or the Louvre-Rivoli stations, and immediately board a train.
The problem was Gwen. She was different. She was the first person he had a desire to share a diamond with. They’d both begun working at the Louvre around the same time. He couldn’t remember who spoke first, but Peter imagined it was Gwen. There was something about her independence, her love of life, and her sense of humor that attracted him. When she wasn’t on stroll-around duty, Peter hung around her office a bit while he found a way to make a wax copy of her boss’s master display case key. Gwen and he had gone out for dinner here and there. She was fun and didn’t seem to have any interest in them delving into each other’s pasts.
Although he tried to keep her at arm’s length, like he did everyone in his life, she snuck into his very being. There were times he felt her green eyes peered into his soul, rather than seeing his Peter Wabbit Louvre persona. Being honest, Peter enjoyed their conversations and flirting almost as much as handling a perfect diamond. Still, he knew he’d never put a ring on her finger. Once the heist was done tomorrow, he’d be gone.
He regretted that while he would get away, lose his glasses, change the color of his hair, and receive a tidy sum when he presented the Hortensia to its private buyer, Gwen would be stuck with the fallout of what he’d done. Not only would their personal involvement raise questions, but there invariably would be criticism about how she neglected her guard duties while helping chase the mice he planned to release.
The mice, those furry rodents with their pointed snouts, small rounded ears, and body-length scaly tails, were going to be the distraction that provided him just enough time to grab the diamond during the public tour. Peter already could feel an adrenaline rush thinking about tomorrow. It saddened him knowing, when the confusion of the moment settled, the scurrying mice would tip Gwen off immediately that he wasn’t who she’d thought. He hadn’t meant to introduce her to his fancy mice, but on one occasion, when he’d been running late to meet her for dinner, he’d forgotten to take a little white mouse out of his pocket. When the mouse poked its snout up, Gwen recoiled. Peter had had to take the mouse from his pocket and educate her about it, while he stroked its soft fur.
“A fancy mouse like this is a domesticated form of the house mouse. It really is considered a pocket pet. That’s why I forgot about it.”
“You have a mouse as a pet?”
“Several. They don’t take up much room, are easy to feed, and are fun to watch on their little exercise wheels.”
Gwen shuddered. “Somehow I don’t think of mice as being my idea of the pet of the week.”
“Lots of people disagree with you. There are clubs all over the world who host shows for mice.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
He smiled and shook his head from side to side. “If you don’t believe me, look them up. Some of them in the United States include the FMBA or Fancy Mouse Breeders’ Association and the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, which is also referred to as AFRMA. In England, mouse fanciers like me can belong to the National Mouse Club.”
Gwen hadn’t believed him, but the next day, when he visited the gallery during his lunch hour, she’d sidled up to him and admitted, “I went home and read up on the clubs you told me about. You weren’t kidding me.”
Peter could still picture how he turned toward Gwen and their gazes locked. “I would never do that.” He meant it then and he still did, but he hadn’t promised that he wouldn’t hurt her. His thoughts continued weighing on him the next day while he prepared for the hoist. As Peter dropped each mouse into the pocket of the specially created vest he wore, it cuddled toward the warmth of his body. He’d spent hours walking around his apartment acclimating the mice to the vest, his body, and movement. Whether they napped or nibbled the cheese he’d placed in the bottom of each lined pocket, the mice were still enough that with a slightly oversized untucked shirt and his sport coat covering the vest, they weren’t noticeable either on the metro or when he reached the museum.
Entering through the employees’ entrance, despite it being his day off, he greeted the guard on duty. “Hey, John.”
“Hello, Mr. Wabbit.” John scanned the list on his clipboard. “I don’t have you as working today.”
“I’m not officially. The boss asked me to look at one report, so rather than waiting for Monday, I thought I’d check it out today and then take the tour. Is that a problem?”
“No, sir. We all know who you are. Go on in.”
As Peter passed by him, he hoped John wouldn’t lose his job on Monday, especially when the powers that be discovered Peter’s empty desk and realized his workspace had been wiped clean of fingerprints. Putting John out of his mind, Peter veered to the main desk and bought a tour ticket. He spent a little time visiting his favorite exhibits, including a moment to engage the device in his pocket to use high-pitched ultra sound waves to disarm the Hortensia diamond’s alarm, before returning to the entrance of the Gallerie D’Apollon to meet up with the tour guide.
He looked around, but didn’t see Gwen. Strange, she usually worked during this tour. Peter hoped there was nothing wrong. Too bad he wouldn’t have an opportunity to find out. Once the tour began, Peter kept his eye on the guard who was working in Gwen’s place while he listened carefully as the tour guide explained about the precious stone vases and the various jewels on display. While the guide extolled the beauty and size of the Regent diamond, Peter held back a few steps from the group. With a flick of his wrist, Peter pulled the string that released the pockets of his vest. Standing still, he felt the falling mice slip to the ground. Free, they scampered in all directions.
It only took a few seconds before a scream or two of “Mouse!” filled the room. As people moved in all directions, Peter went quickly to the case he’d previously disarmed and slipped the key he’d made from the wax image he’d taken of Gwen’s boss’s key into the lock. He didn’t immediately open the case. Instead, Peter took a step away from the case and pointed across the room while he yelled, “Be careful, over there! There’s a group of mice!”
It was only when heads turned, women screamed, and people bumped into each other as they tried to avoid the mice that he slipped open the case and removed the Hortensia diamond. Pocketing it, he walked swiftly out of the Louvre and to the metro. Keeping one hand on his pocket, he glanced at his watch. He was right on time for the next train.
Peter willed his heart not to race as he calmly walked down the steps and onto the platform. He peered over his shoulder. Nobody was following him. The train arrived and when the doors opened, he stepped into the filled car. He felt a moment of relief as the doors closed. Against the train’s forward lurch, he kept his balance by holding the strap above his head tightly.
Three stops and he’d be safe.
At the first stop, people bumped against him as those leaving jostled those getting on. He automatically shifted his body to protect his pocket. As the doors closed, he looked out at the platform and saw Gwen. She held something up in her hand, blew him a kiss, and then was gone in the crowd. His mind whirled. Could she have?
Peter reached into his pocket. Slowly, he pulled out a rabbit’s foot keychain. Attached to it was a paper mouse cut-out. He read the message. “Maybe you’ll get lucky next time, Wabbit.”
Judge Debra H. Goldstein writes Kensington’s Sarah Blair mystery series (One Taste Too Many, Two Bites Too Many, Three Treats Too Many). She also wrote Should Have Played Poker and IPPY winning Maze in Blue. Her short stories, including Anthony and Agatha nominated The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place and Derringer Finalist Pig Lickin’ Good, have appeared in numerous publications. Debra serves on the national boards of SinC and MWA and is president of SEMWA.