by Kara Cerise
At Midnight was first published in 2013 at Writers Who Kill.
Sneaking into her sister’s hotel room to search for stolen jewelry was not how Valencia Lancaster had planned to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Val turned her head left then right to make sure she was alone in the hallway. She inserted the keycard she had swiped from Sienna’s purse into the slot and heard a click. As she turned the door handle, she noticed that her hands were dry from the winter weather. With grim humor, she thought that the night began innocently enough when she borrowed a jar of hand cream from her sister’s purse. What she found inside the jar had changed everything.
Val held her breath and quickly entered the room. She exhaled and leaned against the closed door. Sienna would kill her for this. Val pulled a flashlight from her purse and pressed the button. She didn’t want to turn on the overhead light in case Sienna, who was at the New Year’s Eve party in the interior hotel courtyard, would see her room illuminated.
She pawed through neatly folded clothes in a dresser drawer and eyed a cute camisole in her favorite turquoise color. Better leave it. Regretfully, she closed the drawer then searched the bathroom and closet. Nothing; both suitcases were empty too. Her hunch that the rest of the stolen jewelry was in Sienna’s room was either wrong or she had overlooked a hiding place.
Val nibbled her lower lip as she sat on the bed. Did she secretly hope that her sister was guilty? Yes, maybe…no. Perhaps she was just jealous of Sienna’s quick rise in the family jewelry business. Admittedly, she had been hurt that her father was grooming her sister for the CEO position. Plus, Sienna had begun relying heavily on her new assistant, Gemma, relegating Val to outsider. Hurt feelings aside, she knew something was very wrong.
She stood, turned to leave and stubbed her toe on a hard object. Val clenched her teeth, stifling an oath. As she moved the flashlight to examine her foot and the open toed, black Ferragamos she had borrowed from Sienna, she saw the offending object she’d tripped over. A backpack? She knelt on the carpet and pulled it out from under the bed, unzipped and folded back the cover. Val frowned as she saw a large battery operated drill and several drill bits. Odd.
A sudden loud knock at the door followed by a gruff male voice, froze her. “Anyone there?”
Val heard the familiar click of the door being unlocked. Hastily she shoved the backpack under the bed and dove behind an arm chair. Cold sweat dampened her Christian Dior dress. From her vantage point she saw the silhouette of a man reach under the bed and pull out the backpack. He picked it up and left.
Silence except for the sound of Val’s teeth chattering.
Val limped into the hotel’s glass atrium lobby, her injured toe throbbing. She paused to admire the decorated room. It was beautiful; imitation snow fell slowly from the sixty foot high ceiling onto Christmas trees. Lights from the harbor twinkled through floor-to-ceiling windows. The band played their rendition of Seals & Crofts song, “Diamond Girl.” Sienna knew how to throw a New Year’s Eve bash.
“Good evening. I believe you’re Sienna’s sister, Valentine?” A well-dressed dark haired man who belonged in a fairy tale walked up to Val.
She went weak at the knees. “Yes, I’m Sienna’s sister. My name is Valencia.”
“Charmed. I’d shake your hand but…” He shrugged. Val saw he held a glass of champagne in either hand.
“Have we met?”
Val nodded and then sagged. This incredible man was dating Gemma? Life really was unfair. Mr. Gorgeous led the way through the crowd. “Victoria, have you seen the ice sculptures?” Alexsandr sidestepped a line of people waiting to enter the exhibit.
“Va-len-cia. I haven’t had a chance. Too busy with the jewelry show and the aftermath.”
Alexsandr glanced at her. “Sorry about the theft. That must have been a blow to your business. So many pieces of white glass, I mean diamonds, were stolen including the Derouin Diamond.”
Val nodded and frowned when she thought of last week’s unsolved theft including the famous pink Derouin Diamond set in a ring, worth seven million dollars. Captivated by the famous ring, she’d purchased a replica. The news media referred to the gang of professional diamond thieves as the Pink Panthers after the Peter Sellers comedy movies. But, according to detectives, the gang wasn’t a joke since they had already stolen about half a billion dollars’ worth of jewelry and committed five hundred robberies. Val sighed. She wished her father had stayed in town, but he left after the detectives concluded the thieves and the jewelry were in another country.
Alexsandr pursed his lips. “It was clever of the Panthers to put a ‘wet paint’ sign on the bench outside the door so nobody would sit on it and witness the robbers leaving. I heard the police don’t have any leads although it’s rumored that they lost the ring.” He gazed intently at her. “Do you know anything about that?”
Val felt a chill. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms with her hands. Probably delayed nerves from sneaking into her sister’s room and almost getting caught by an unknown man.
“Thwack.” Something hit the outside corner of her eye then tickled as it retracted. She jumped.
“Tharpy New Thear!” A drunken man stumbled off, blowing his pink-feathered noisemaker.
Idiot. This night couldn’t end soon enough. Val spotted the back of Sienna’s floor length dress. It was an elegant Zhang Zhifeng haute couture contemporary version of a traditional Chinese dress made from red silk with applique flowers scattered across it. While Val preferred wearing a simple black dress and jacket, Sienna liked elaborate clothing.
Alexsandr said, “Look who I found. Valarie.” He handed Gemma, then Sienna a glass of champagne.
Val didn’t bother to correct him and elbowed her way into the tight knot of admirers surrounding her sister.
Val shook her elbow from Sienna’s grasp and smacked the rhinestone clutch into Sienna’s arms. “I borrowed the jar of lotion from your purse. I’ll give it back later.” She watched to see if Sienna showed signs of being scared or panicked.
“Fine.” Val noticed that Sienna looked upward as if asking the heavens for patience to deal with her annoying sister then clasped the purse to her side. But she didn’t seem nervous.
“That cream is expensive.” Gemma folded her arms across her body. “You’d be wise to return the jar.”
Sienna raised her hand. “It’s okay, Gemma.”
Val reached into her jacket pocket and took out the cream. She started to hand the jar to Sienna but Gemma intercepted it.
“I’ll put it in your room, Sienna, since I have your second key card.” She tucked the jar into her satchel.
Val noticed that Alexsandr raised his eyebrows and gave Gemma a long, considering look.
She needed air and began walking away. Sienna turned toward her. “Don’t you dare leave the party, Valencia Lancaster. You’re never there when I need you.” She turned back.
Val stood on the patio next to a bench, the outside entrance to the now cancelled jewelry show behind her. Lights twinkled on trees surrounding the peaceful harbor. The decorated boats, moored to the wharf, gently rocked on the water. It was a magical scene.
To her left she saw Alexsandr and Gemma walk on the dock and stop under a light. A large man stepped off a nearby speedboat and met the pair. He looked like the man who had been in her sister’s room! Her intuition on high alert, Val crouched behind a planter containing palm trees.
As snippets of their conversation drifted by, she heard Gemma mention white glass. Wasn’t that the expression Alexsandr had used to refer to diamonds? It sounded like their plan was to take the speedboat to an airstrip then fly to Montenegro. The man from the boat handed Alexsandr a backpack and gave Gemma a small rectangular card. Was that the extra keycard to Sienna’s room that Gemma had mentioned? She bet these three were the jewel thieves. They must be using her sister’s room to hide incriminating evidence. How dare they set up Sienna and rob her family.
Alexsandr and Gemma left the harbor area. Val followed at a distance. If she was correct, they would lead her to the stolen jewelry. They walked through the lobby and into the ice sculpture exhibit entrance. She waited and then entered the anteroom containing warm clothing for guests. She grabbed a thermal jacket and pants and threw them on over her clothes. Val kicked off her shoes and pulled on a pair of boots. Last she donned heavy gloves.
Ready for the bracing nine-degree cold, Val opened the door. As it shut behind her, the clamor ceased. Most people were at the party so the exhibit was deserted. Beautifully crafted sculptures glistened under bright lights like shiny jewels. She followed the carpeted path winding its way through the sculptures and saw Alexsandr and Gemma walk into a room of ice sculptures depicting New York City. They stopped in front of a large red apple obviously meant to represent the Big Apple.
Alexsandr shrugged off the backpack, dropped it on the ground, and opened it. He pulled out a drill and began boring into the apple around its crystal clear ice stem. Val gasped and threw her gloved hands over her mouth. Small pieces of ice flew out shimmering in the light. He stopped and removed the stem. Gemma reached in the hole, pulled out a clear bag and placed it carefully on the floor.
Val crept across the carpeted floor and up onto a taxi bench inside an oversized ice taxi used for photos. She lay down out of view and peeked out of the doorless taxi. It looked like loose diamonds in the bag. They must have taken the diamonds out of the settings before hiding them. According to the news, the gang’s usual modus operandi was to immediately take a motorboat and get away after a theft, but apparently they had altered the plan.
Sienna! What was she doing here? Val watched her sister slowly step out from behind an ice reindeer sculpture and bump into a snowman. Her elbow hit his carrot nose. It fell and shattered on the ground.
“You,” Gemma pointed at Sienna. “Give me the Derouin diamond ring. I know you have it. It wasn’t in your hand cream where I hid it.”
His fairytale shine disappeared. He turned into a thug.
“Sorry, darling. You’re not as clever as you think.” Gemma advanced on Sienna.
“I don’t have your ring.” Sienna backed up, holding her hands in a defensive position in front of her face.
“Liar.” Gemma pushed her.
Sienna hit a sculpture, twisted and fell to the ground clutching her ankle.
Frozen with fear, Val couldn’t move, but Sienna was in danger. She had to act. With an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed, Val sat up. “Gemma. Stop! Here’s the ring.” She flung it out of the taxi. It pinged off the Empire State Building sculpture and rolled across the ground. Gemma leapt after the ring, grabbed it and ran toward the exit.
Charging toward Val like an angry bull, Alexsandr spit out, “You’ve ruined everything. You will pay!”
Val slid out of the taxi, scooped up the bag of diamonds from the floor and bolted up a nearby ramp. At the top she hesitated realizing she was on the second floor with an ice slide the only way down. Taking advantage of her hesitation, Alexsandr caught up to her. He grabbed her right arm twisting it backward. “Give me the diamonds.”
“Take them!” With her left arm she hit him in the face with the diamond bag. He winced and let go of her but grabbed the bag kicking Val behind her knees. She fell backward onto the ice slide, hurtled to the bottom, and landed in a heap.
Alexsandr held up the bag and waved it. Over-exuberant, his foot slipped on the ice. Lurching and swaying to maintain balance, he dropped the bag. It opened upon impact and diamonds spilled out, rolling and plinking down the slide. As he reached down to collect them, Alexsandr slid on loose diamonds. He fell face down, hitting the ice with a “crunch.” His still body slid down the icy chute.
Val somersaulted to her feet to get out of the way.
Alexsandr came to a stop at the bottom, diamonds rolling around him.
Val held onto an ice wall for support and yelled, “My name is Valencia. V-a-l-e-n-c-i-a. Don’t forget it.”
Val helped her injured sister walk back to the atrium lobby. She told security about Alexsandr, Gemma and the man on the boat, instructing them to call the police. Then she helped Sienna to a chair and propped her foot up on another chair.
Sienna said, “I can’t believe we made it out alive. I went looking for Gemma because I needed help with my speech and saw the three of you go into the ice sculpture exhibit. I just wish Gemma hadn’t gotten away with the ring.”
Val smiled. “She didn’t.” Taking her glove off, she twisted a ring on her finger. “This is the real Derouin. I threw her my replica. If she’s lucky, she’ll get ten dollars.”
Turning serious Val said, “You need to see a doctor for your ankle, Sienna.”
“Not until after the opening speech.”
“You can’t stand and give a speech in that condition.”
“I know, Val, but you can.”
Val snapped her mouth shut. “I’d rather die than give a speech. I…I can’t.”
“If you can save us from a notorious group of jewel thieves, you can give a speech. I have faith in you. Look, Val, I do things even though I’m scared. Most days I feel like a fraud trying to run a business – a cubic zirconium among diamonds.” Sienna patted her arm. “Go.”
Valencia walked onto the stage fingering Sienna’s notes. A spotlight shone in her eyes momentarily blinding her. The music stopped although the chatter continued. She felt everyone looking at her and couldn’t decide whether to faint or throw-up. Sienna nodded and smiled encouragingly.
With lowered head and in a quiet voice Valencia began reading from Sienna’s speech. “Welcome…” She paused.
Someone yelled, “Louder!”
The chatter grew as people became restless. Val straightened and then dropped the speech on the ground. Gaze fixed on the audience, she said, “The New Year is a time for new beginnings so I’ll start again. My name is Valencia Lancaster. My sister, Sienna, and I are happy and honored you are with us to celebrate New Year’s Eve.”
She paused until the clapping died down. “Some moments are life changing. Tonight was one of those moments for me. A few hours ago I never would have been brave enough to speak in front of a large crowd. So, face your fears that hold you back. If I can, you can. Let’s celebrate this year of new beginnings together. Everyone ready?”
A small diamond ball began to slide down a pole.
“Happy New Year!”
Pandemonium ensued. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, Val saw fireworks explode in the harbor, lighting up the night sky. Sienna gave her a thumbs up. Valencia grinned and felt like a million bucks.
A big thank you to my niece for playing the part of Valencia Lancaster.
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