Peaches wiped some splotches of paint off her perfectly-manicured fingers and appraised the painting on the easel in the Mediterranean sunlight streaming through the window. Impressionism wasn't her best style (the brush work was so annoyingly finicky), but she was getting better. This canvas wouldn't fool an expert, but it looked pretty good, if she did say so herself.
She tilted her head -- just as an arrow shot past her ear and thrummed into the opposite wall.
Peaches stared at it for a moment and then carefully turned around.
Chloe was leaning against the doorway, a crossbow dangling casually in her hands, eyes wide. "There was a fly," she said innocently.
Peaches sighed and concealed a smile as she turned back around again. She knew Chloe had probably just become bored spending the morning indoors. Peaches sympathized. Retirement at the age of twenty-four had came with its own set of adjustments, primary among them an abundance of leisure time. Which was how she'd ended up trying to paint the perfect water lily.
When she stepped closer to the wall, however, to tug the arrow out of the plaster, there did seem to be remnants of some kind of insect smudged over the tip.
"Good shot," she said, faintly impressed, and Chloe grinned smugly.
"Lunch time?" Chloe said hopefully.
Peaches nodded. Because one of the best things about early retirement was the opportunity to take lunch whenever you liked. And sometimes more than once a day.
Chelsea turned up at exactly the moment when the food was ready to serve. Peaches shot a glance at Chloe and they raised eyebrows at one another. They'd both heard Chelsea arrive earlier; she'd been waiting on the roof until all the chopping and stirring was finished. Chelsea could rarely be coaxed into helping in the kitchen.
She gave them both an engaging grin. "Enough for me?" she said, and Peaches just smiled back and handed her the salt and pepper.
The phone rang just as they sat down at the round glass table in the breakfast nook. Peaches had never understood why it was called the breakfast nook, as they tended to eat all of their meals there. At least, the ones they didn't eat in front of reruns of Next Top Model. The real estate agent had gone on about it at great length, though.
The phone rang again. It wasn't any of their mobiles. In fact, it was a distinct though muted ring that Peaches knew all of them had hoped they'd never hear.
It didn't take them long to dig out the disposable phone inside a fifteenth-century Ming vase on the mantle. (Peaches had sweet-talked a recent American Idol contestant into faking a drunken tantrum at a party in Miami so she could sneak out the back way with the vase. He really had been an obliging boy.)
It was the first and last time it had ever rung, despite being constantly kept charged.
It had fallen silent by the time Chloe pulled it out. She looked at the display and shook her head mutely. The number was unknown. And there was, of course, no voicemail.
The message, however, was crystal clear: Danger. Get out now.
They didn't waste any time. They abandoned their lunch, and each snagged a bag hidden innocuously at the bottom of a closet for just this occasion.
On her way out, Peaches spared a glance at her sunlit studio and the water lilies resting peacefully on the easel. This wasn't the first time she'd needed to drop everything, to cut and run, but this time Peaches had let herself become settled. Maybe even complacent.
It had been over a year since they'd walked away. Why now? Peaches thought.
They left via the roof, the exit where they were least likely to be seen. On the rooftop, Chloe crushed the mobile under her stiletto heel. She collected the pieces and distributed them silently between them. They shared one quick glance and then left the apartment in different directions.
On the way, Peaches casually dropped her pieces of the mobile into three separate trash bins.
She didn't look back.
Two train rides, a gondola ride, three cab fares, and a lift from a gentleman in a stylish jet-black Mercedes later, Peaches met Chelsea and Chloe again in a public square two countries away from their spacious apartment.
"No tails," Chloe said quietly, after they'd stood silently for several moments, watching the passersby in the Frankfurt town square.
Chelsea nodded her head, and Peaches nodded, too. As women who came alive in the spotlight, it had been somewhat against their inclinations to learn how to deflect attention away from themselves. But they'd all learned by necessity exactly how to blend into the background. In some cases, it was as simple as slipping on a head scarf and sunglasses. At other times, it involved such distasteful yet unavoidable things such as public transit, bulky jackets, and cheap hair dye. (Peaches was never going to live down that bottle of bleach blonde dye in Cairo.)
In their former line of work, you did what you had to do in order to survive.
At least, Peaches had thought it was a former line of work. Now she wasn't so sure.
Chloe had casually swiped a tourist's mobile, and now she sat on the edge of the stone fountain and dialled a number they'd memorized years ago. She handed the phone to Chelsea, and she and Peaches both leaned closer to hear the conversation. The number directed them through a complicated phone tree that had them scribbling several series of numbers in a notebook to figure out the coded sequences. This finally led them to an extension, and they heard a ringtone on the other end of the line. Apparently that would reroute the call through several satellites in a complicated way that Peaches had never bothered to understand. She was just relieved to hear Kelly's familiar voice say, smooth as silk, "Hello, ladies."
"Hi," Chelsea said. Her voice was enviably calm to Peaches' ear.
"I can get to you," Kelly said. "That's probably best."
She was being purposely vague, which wasn't a good sign. Peaches knew something had to be seriously wrong if Kelly was willing to travel all the way to them. She wasn't clear on what Kelly's job actually entailed, but Peaches didn't have a lot of time for random trips around the world.
Chloe started biting her fingernails, and Peaches reached out to pull Chloe's hands away from her mouth. She was going to ruin her French manicure.
Chelsea gave Kelly the code for their current location that had, according to legend, originated with the very first Headmistress Fritton. "Okay," Kelly said crisply. "See you soon."
At a nearby five-star hotel, Peaches brazened her way behind the reception desk and picked the name of a guest out of the reservation book who wasn't scheduled to arrive for a few more days. Half an hour later, Chloe, who spoke the best German, checked in as said guest, arriving two days early, and charmed her way into a suite with the jacuzzi tub. She also had a complimentary bottle of champagne delivered to the room.
After all, what was the point of being on the run from god-only-knew-who if you couldn't treat yourself?
When Peaches and Chelsea knocked softly on the door, Chloe already had the champagne open. They clinked glasses, smiling at one another. They weren't the same smiles they'd shared around lunch in their breakfast nook, however. There was an edge behind them, and none of them wanted to bring up what Kelly's visit might mean.
"This reminds me of that time in Venezuela," Chelsea said, leaning back gracefully on the couch. "Except the champagne isn't as good."
"Let's hope things don't go the way they did in Venezuela," Chloe said.
Peaches wriggled her feet into Chloe's lap and sighed as Chloe absent-mindedly rubbed the sole of her foot. "I think we're all hoping there's no repeat of Venezuela," she said.
To be honest, though, Peaches wasn't sure what they were all thinking. Relief that they'd all made it to the prearranged meeting place and that Kelly was going to be there soon was visible in their eyes, of course. But there was tension as well, and uncertainty in the air.
And Peaches felt something else thrumming underneath her skin, something she didn't want to admit out loud: a dangerously familiar and undeniably addictive spike of adrenaline.
She hadn't run a con, even minor ones like slipping unnoticed into a train compartment or securing a room in a five-star hotel, in a year. She'd thought she might feel rusty or nervous. Instead it felt like it always had, walking that knife edge of thrill and fear, and Peaches knew it would always feel that way.
A con artist is for life.
Con artists didn't get art studios and occasional guest appearances on celebrity quiz shows, though. At least not for long.
She took another swallow of the expensive champagne, smiled, and said, "Shall we try out the jacuzzi?"
Some time ago, rather than tallying their sexual encounters with members of the British royal family, it had become much more interesting to count the number of items they'd each stolen from members of the royal families of Europe. (Chloe was currently in the lead, but only because she counted the time she'd accidentally kidnapped the infant daughter of a distant cousin of some prince or other while attempting to be inconspicuous on a sunny afternoon in the park; the picnic hamper she picked up turned out to be a bassinet. The kidnapping had only lasted less than a minute, as had Chloe's attempts at being inconspicuous.)
Around the same time, they'd come to the conclusion that the only people they all really wanted to sleep with were each other.
The thing about having sex with your two best friends, though, was that you couldn't really hide things from them. Peaches was certain that Chelsea and Chloe could feel her traitorous desire to return to a life of crime in every touch and every kiss.
She fell asleep with her head on Chelsea's shoulder and her heart beating fast and furious under her ribs.
Kelly showed up the next morning, and they climbed up from their balcony onto the roof of the hotel to have their conversation in private.
"It's bad, ladies," Kelly said, barely bothering with pleasantries. Peaches appreciated that about Kelly -- she'd never sugarcoat anything. "The word on the spook grapevine is that Interpol wants you for the da Vinci job a few days ago."
"Oh!" Peaches gasped.
"Interpol!" Chelsea said, shocked.
"Yes. And that's only the beginning."
Chloe was still staring at Kelly. "Are you saying somebody stole The Da Vinci Code?"
"Not The Da Vinci Code," Kelly said patiently. "It's a Leonardo da Vinci painting known as The Artist. There's a reference to a self-portrait in his journals," she added, "but no one has ever found it, and it's long been considered a lost masterpiece. A few days ago, though, rumours started circulating that a private collector in Hong Kong named Xavier was looking to sell it."
The idea of a masterpiece of da Vinci's appearing out of nowhere gave Peaches all kinds of romantic fantasies. "Think about how many people would be desperate for a look at that painting," she said sighing.
Kelly smiled. "Exactly. In fact, three days ago, before Xavier officially released any information to the public, his house was ransacked and several pieces were stolen. Including the lost da Vinci."
"So, somebody stole a painting that no one's ever seen before," Chelsea said doubtfully, "and that most people don't even believe exists?"
"It sounds like a scam to me," Chloe added. "And not a bad one. I wish we'd thought of it." She paused. "I mean, not that we do that kind of thing anymore."
Peaches winced internally.
"Well," Kelly said. "That's the thing."
"What?" Chelsea said.
"Someone's claiming you did do it."
The three of them stared at her.
"We didn't," Peaches said.
"I believe you," Kelly replied. "But there's another collector, Eagleson, who claims he saw the three of you make off with those paintings."
"That dirty rotten liar!" Chelsea exclaimed.
"Interpol's got the local cops keeping it quiet for now," Kelly continued, "but they're serious about finding you. He must've given them a solid ID."
"I've never even been to Hong Kong!" Chloe protested.
"Yes, you have," Peaches felt obliged to point out. "During the job with the emerald tiara and the Olympic boxer, remember?"
Chloe waved a hand dismissively. "I was in a crate the whole time, that doesn't count."
"Crates never count," Kelly agreed.
"Don't worry," Chelsea said, and she was using that confident tone of voice that made Peaches swoon a little inside. "We're not going to let some two-bit art geek with the brains of a pea and a vault that can be cracked like an egg push us around."
"Maybe if we went to him and explained that we didn't take his stupid painting," Chloe began.
Kelly shook her head. "Interpol's already all over the place. You'd never get close enough."
"Plus, he's never going to believe us," Chelsea added.
"What if we did have the painting," Peaches suggested, thinking of her studio back in the apartment. If they could get their hands on a canvas from the right period she could figure out some paint blends and maybe --
Kelly said, frowning slightly, "I don't doubt your forgery skills, Peaches, but this is a painting that no one except him and Eagleson have ever claimed to have seen before. He didn't make any pictures available publicly. As far as we know, no pictures of it even exist."
"If it was legitimate, he would have had it insured," Chloe said, sniffing in disdain. "Besides, I can't believe he wouldn't want to show something like that off. I mean, it's a lost masterpiece, at least have a party!"
"It would be an epic party," Chelsea said dreamily. Peaches sighed in agreement.
"You're all thinking about fancy hors d'oeuvres and designer dresses right now, aren't you?" Kelly said, but she was smiling.
"Nothing wrong with hors d'oeuvres or designer dresses," Chloe said defensively. "Or shoes," she added.
Peaches wasn't surprised by the last comment. Chloe had once evaded an entire MI6 team just to break into Manolo Blahnik and try on the newest spring shoes before they debuted at Paris Fashion Week. She'd even brought home a pair each for Chelsea and Peaches.
Thinking of that pair of shoes, back in her shoe house in their old apartment, made something in Peaches' chest twist uncomfortably tight. "Well," she said firmly. "Despite the lack of partying or bragging, which any reasonable person would do, say that there is an actual painting. Which everyone thinks we have."
Chelsea looked thoughtful. "Well, I guess we should go find out if it's real or not," she said. "Hong Kong, anyone?"
Kelly had given them a few leads for tracking down the origin of the rumours about the painting, which was why the next day Peaches sat down for lunch with Xavier's recently-fired personal assistant. She believed Peaches to be the assistant to a reclusive collector who had sent her to find out whether the painting did exist -- a shaky cover, admittedly, but the woman didn't seem suspicious. She claimed that she'd only seen the painting once, from the back. She had no idea where Xavier had found the piece, and he'd been cagier than usual about it. Things had become really strained when Eagleson had shown up to authenticate it, and she'd suspected he wanted to buy it.
To Peaches' mind, the painting wasn't getting any less mysterious the more they knew about it.
Later that afternoon, after Peaches had divested herself of the buttoned-up assistant clothes she'd worn to lunch, they all sat on the balcony of their hotel suite and considered the matter.
"I still don't understand if the painting actually exists," Chloe said, pouting. She was cleaning the smallest of her collection of crossbows, which she must have concealed at the bottom of her Louis Vuitton escape bag. It was a very nice piece of weaponry, so Peaches couldn't fault her for not wanting to leave it behind. And anyway, it was quite comforting to watch Chloe with a bow in her hands.
"Let's forget about the existence of the painting for a moment," Chelsea said. "What about Eagleson?"
Chloe had spent the morning finding Eagleson's hotel suite in Hong Kong and setting up what surveillance she could. She hadn't caught sight of the man himself, however, and nothing in his background check made him suspicious. He was an art dealer based in Barcelona who specialized in the Italian Renaissance, and had come here to authenticate and possibly buy the da Vinci. They hadn't ruled out the possibility that he'd invented his claim to have seen them (he'd IDed them by three of their aliases, but they'd already known those identities were burned). Even though he hadn't seen them, that didn't mean he hadn't seen three people who looked like them.
Peaches said, "So if there was a painting and there were three faux Totties on the scene -- "
"Then who," Chelsea continued, "has the motivation to arrange this whole scheme and frame us for it?"
They considered that. In their time as international con artists and thieves, they'd made their fair share of enemies. Peaches reluctantly started a list and, a short while later, they were looking at a piece of paper with twenty-eight possibilities written out in Peaches' elegant cursive.
"Oh dear," Peaches said quietly.
"That's not very helpful," Chloe said glumly.
"I didn't realized there were so many people who hated us," Chelsea said, a disappointed expression on her face. "I was working towards being universally adored, you know."
"We adore you universally," Chloe said comfortingly, and Peaches nodded.
Chelsea smiled at them. "I know," she said. "Ditto."
They basked in mutual universal adoration.
That night Peaches was startled awake by the sound of someone climbing in through their hotel room balcony.
She had barely rolled off the bed (pulling Chelsea with her, who, even after all these years, still had terrible reflexes upon just waking) when Chloe fired her crossbow into the interloper's hand, pinning him to the bedroom wall.
A gun dropped onto the floor.
"Oh, I just hate guns," Peaches muttered.
Chelsea patted her soothingly yet sleepily on the arm.
Chloe said, "How dare you enter a lady's bedroom without permission?"
The guy attached to the wall groaned.
It was short work to gag him, tie him to a chair, and staunch the blood flow from his hand. His pockets yielded nothing, which meant he probably wasn't Interpol, but even that didn't lift their spirits.
He mumbled something incomprehensible. Chloe helpfully loosened his gag.
"You have something that my boss wants," he said. He was clearly attempting to sound threatening, but he was not very practiced at it. Peaches rated him four out of ten, and that was being charitable.
It was unspoken that none of them wanted to give up any information regarding the painting. The fact that Xavier had tracked them to the hotel was worrying enough.
Chloe picked through Kelly's surveillance photos. "You're a bodyguard!" she exclaimed, pointing to the dark clad figure in one image. Sure enough, there he was, arms folded, keeping a lookout as Xavier stepped into a car. "Or, um -- a chauffeur?"
"More like a goon," Chelsea said disdainfully.
"A bodygoon!" Peaches added helpfully.
The bodygoon rasped, "You won't get anything out of me!" upon which Chloe rolled her eyes and kicked him in the shin. "Ow!" he yelped. Chelsea stuffed the gag back in his mouth.
"They wouldn't have sent just one," Peaches said, "would they?"
The goon nodded at the same time as Chloe shook her head.
Chelsea grinned. "Well then, let's go find your friend."
By dawn, Chloe had followed the second goon to Eagleson's hotel and then to Xavier's apartment, and Chelsea and Peaches had, though a combination of persuasion and bribery, convinced the original goon to give up information on both his boss and Eagleson. It was clear that though the bodygoons worked for Xavier, Eagleson was in it up to his neck; in fact, he seemed to be a lot more dangerous than he appeared. He'd been the one, for instance, who'd given Xavier their location in Hong Kong.
Eagleson definitely needed a closer look, and not only because they'd caught sight of people who looked suspiciously like they could be Interpol agents in the lobby of the hotel.
They hit the goon over the head just hard enough to keep him unconscious while they settled him in the back of a truck headed for Amsterdam, along with three small diamonds to keep him from coming back. By the time he figured out they were fakes, they intended to have this whole mess wrapped up with a bow.
Peaches nodded decisively. A rose pink bow with delicate lace edging.
A few calls and a quick mid-morning infiltration of MI6's Hong Kong headquarters revealed that Eagleson was a well-constructed alias for a member of a crime syndicate based in London known as Les Hommes. Though Eagleson wasn't familiar to Peaches, Les Hommes had caused some trouble for her once at Edinburgh Castle, and she didn't have fond memories. Chelsea also remembered Les Hommes getting in the middle of some St Trinian's business during their first year there.
Xavier, despite his bodygoons, no longer seemed like a suspect. Eagleson had been in Hong Kong to authenticate the painting and, as his financial records confirmed, secure a deal to buy it. He could very well have snagged it in order to keep both the money and the art; he certainly had access to enough information to convincingly frame the three of them.
He'd also already boarded a private jet, currently heading back to Barcelona.
Whether he had the painting or not, he was clearly still at the centre of the whole thing.
Peaches cracked out three fresh passports, and they jumped on the next flight back to Spain.
Eagleson's villa was on the coast, just north of Barcelona.
In their history of working together, Peaches, Chelsea and Chloe had a tendency to choose marks and jobs that allowed them to focus on their strengths: seduction, flattery, and gossip. They'd concentrated on using their talents during lavish parties, gala events, and celebrity red carpets, with the occasional dabble in reclusive millionaires in need of company and museums in the dead of night. Peaches enjoyed life in the lap of luxury, and she enjoyed liberating that luxury from its former owners. It was win-win.
But Eagleson did not host parties. He did not seem to have friends. Or colleagues. (Or if he did, they must have known him by another name.) He did not invite women or men back to his house. His villa was a fortress of solitude behind a state-of-the-art Bugle Mark V security system, a team of vigilant guards, and only three entrances.
Well, four, if you included the possibility of tunnelling through his backyard, under his concrete foundation, and jackhammering their way up into his wine cellar. But that was so ridiculous that Peaches refused to even write it on the list. Chelsea had pouted a little, but she'd cheered up when Peaches agreed to put "general tunnelling" down at the very bottom of the page as a last resort.
Using a combination of covert satellite images from some of their contacts, the original construction plans liberated from the rusty filing cabinet of a now-defunct construction company, and a lot of guesswork, Peaches had painstakingly put together a floor plan. Blueprints were not her forté -- she'd always been more comfortable with a paintbrush.
"I don't see why they couldn't be called pinkprints or purpleprints," Chloe said, setting down a steaming cup of Peaches' favourite gourmet Belgian hot chocolate. Peaches wrapped her hands around it thankfully as Chloe looked at her draft contemplatively. "It's kind of a sad colour."
"It's considered a serious manly colour, I suppose," Peaches pointed out.
Chloe rolled her eyes. "It's over rated," she said. "Plus it's totally unfashionable right now. Did you see the spring collections this year? Bright warm colours, light fabrics. No blue."
Peaches smiled at her. "You look good in blue," she said.
"You say I look good in every colour," Chloe pointed out.
"Or in nothing at all!" Peaches said, winking at her.
She switched to using a red pen for the rest of her design.
They had to assume Interpol would be on their tails, and they weren't even sure Eagleson had the stupid painting, but this might be their last chance to clear their names. If they didn't find the da Vinci, they were going to need to disappear for good -- or else spend some quality time in a cell.
Not only would that be bad for their complexions, jumpsuits (even ones in bright warm colours and light fabrics) were not attractive fashion choices.
There was of course option number three: let Eagleson's clearly-more-competent-than-their-old-friend-bodygoon-goons find them. But none of them knew what lay at the end of that road and they were not precisely eager to find out.
So, in the end, it came down to what they did best. And that was why Chelsea put on a stunning red dress, strapped her gun to her thigh, and walked straight up to Eagleson's door.
Five security guards converged on her within moments. They confiscated her gun and found the slender knife blade in her boot. But they missed the tiny camera in her necklace and the audio transmitter in her hemline, so Chloe and Peaches watched and listened with bated breath as she was marched into a quiet office where Eagleson sat waiting.
"You didn't bring my painting," he said softly, and his voice, even over the slightly fuzzy comm unit, sent chills down Peaches' spine. He was seated behind a large desk and the low light in the room cast his features into shadow. The camera angle from Chelsea's necklace gave him an even more sinister appearance.
Not to mention the fact that he was suggesting that they had the da Vinci, when knew very well that they didn't. Alarm bells rang in Peaches' head. Maybe he was recording the conversation, intending to entrap them into incriminating themselves.
"Be careful, Chels," she whispered, and sent a quick text on the mobile she'd bought that afternoon at the airport to some of the girls back at St Trinian's.
"I have so many paintings," Chelsea was saying to Eagleson in a musing kind of way. "I don't suppose you have a photograph to refresh my memory?"
Eagleson ignored her. "And you haven't brought along your amusing cohorts. How unfortunate. I'd hoped to remove your little trio from interfering in my business in one fell swoop."
"I work alone these days," Chelsea said.
Peaches knew that Chelsea was lying, but it still send a spike of fear down her spine to hear the words spoken aloud. Chelsea had always been the one of the three of them who'd excelled at the art of the con. When they'd started on the straight and narrow, Peaches had taken up art and quiz shows, and Chloe had concentrated on her love of weaponry and fashion. Neither of them could have done those high profile things while they were on the job.
But Chelsea had been giving up a lot more. Peaches worried sometimes that their new life was never going to be enough for Chelsea.
Although ever since Peaches had tasted the thrill of pulling a job again, she'd been wondering if their new life was enough for her.
Of course, that assumed they still had their new life once this da Vinci thing was settled.
"Dear girl," Eagleson said, "you needn't prolong this act of naiveté."
"Well, I could say the same about you! It isn't appealing on a man of your age, you know."
He laughed softly and eerily. "This has been a charming little parry and thrust, but I'm afraid I have to insist you produce my painting, or I shall have to place a little phone call to those friends of yours in the black sedan."
Chloe gasped and gripped Peaches' arm. Interpol.
Chelsea tilted her head and said, "I don't suppose you'd allow a girl the chance to fix her lip gloss first?"
Since Chelsea's lip gloss could knock a man out after one decent kiss (the dosage of the drugs was carefully calibrated), Peaches was firmly on board with that plan.
But Eagleson was apparently not so easily fooled. He stood up and his face was visible for the first time. His shock of white hair framed dark eyes and a dangerous expression. Peaches drew in a breath, but Chelsea didn't move a muscle.
He approached Chelsea, getting larger in the camera's view with every step. Peaches had never wished so hard to be able to jump to Chelsea's rescue.
Chloe, however, was perfectly able to do so. "That's my cue, I think," she said, and stood up, snagging her hang-glider pack in one hand and her trusty bow in the other.
Peaches didn't say "Get her home safe," because Chloe always did. Instead she kissed Chloe once, for luck. There was a bit of pink on Chloe's cheeks when she pulled away, but she just nodded and slipped out the back.
"You are not smart enough to outmanoeuvre me, girl," Eagleson was saying, and Peaches raised her eyebrow. She could practically see the devious grin in Chelsea's eyes.
Over the comm unit, Peaches heard a knock on the door. Eagleson turned his head, frowned, and walked towards it. There was a whispered conversation, and then he strode back towards his desk. "I'll give you some time to consider," he said, and waved for the nearest guard to take Chelsea away. As she was escorted from the room, Peaches could hear the distinct sound of Eagleson picking up the phone.
Hopefully the girls back at St Trinian's could keep him occupied and give them enough time to find the painting. Maybe they could even get him to accidentally incriminate himself on his own stupid recording.
Chelsea was led to a nearby room and tied securely to a chair. Within moments, she'd managed to free herself using a hair pin, immobilize the guard using a nearby bronze sculpture (Greek, fifth-century BCE, Peaches noted) and her bra strap, and said softly, "All right, where do I go?"
Peaches quickly gave her directions. The room they'd decided to head towards was a room with no exterior walls and was the most secure set-up for a safe or a small vault in the whole house. It was a guess, but as Chloe had pointed out, if you didn't put your valuable painting that you were conning the world into believing three girls stole in a highly secure safe, you were really stupid.
"It's pretty nice up here," Chloe murmured into the comm unit. She'd just launched off the nearby ridge and was in the air, making her way towards the roof of Eagleson's villa.
"You always sound sort of dreamy when you're flying," Chelsea said, almost under her breath as she manoeuvred silently through the house.
Chloe laughed. "I won't fall asleep, don't worry."
"I'm not worried," Chelsea said confidently.
Peaches wished she could say the same.
Her disposable mobile buzzed with a text: He thinks he's talking us into buying a Titan.
Peaches assumed they meant Titian. In any case, it meant Chelsea still had a bit of time.
At that moment, Chelsea reached the door. It only took a few moments for her to work the lock and slip inside.
The office did not, on first glance, contain any priceless stolen masterpieces.
Nor did it upon second glance.
Peaches held back her frustration, so as not to worry Chelsea, and said disdainfully, "That is definitely a reproduction on the far wall. He's not even trying with that one."
Chelsea stifled a giggle, and started peeking behind frames and bookshelves, looking for a safe, and then lifted up chairs and rugs in case there was one embedded in the floor.
This was the part of the plan where they were running blind.
Chloe said, quietly over the comm unit, "Made it." Peaches breathed a sigh of relief. She was on the roof and ready to get Chelsea out of there.
"Well done," Peaches said to her, quietly. "We're still looking."
"The guy has to own a safe," Chloe said. "I mean, just look at this place. This is not a man who feels secure about his valuables."
Peaches' phone buzzed again. He just claimed access to a da Vinci. We've almost got him.
"The girls have Eagleson in their sights," Peaches reported.
"I wish I had him in the sights of my crossbow," Chloe said grumpily.
"Not just yet," Peaches said soothingly.
Chelsea, meanwhile, was staring at the bookshelf on the far wall. "There's always," she said softly, "a secret entrance." Then she stepped forward and reached out to touch the spine of one of the books, and in seconds the whole wall swung open to reveal a hidden room.
Chelsea and Peaches gasped in unison.
"What?" Chloe demanded. "What? Did you find it?"
Chelsea was standing in front of a cornucopia of art from across the centuries. Paintings, sculpture, pottery, jewellery, mosaics, and all kinds of other pieces were displayed around the room, in a dazzling display of colours and shapes.
Almost every one of them featured a woman.
"This is a little creepy," Chelsea said. "Do you think it's, like, a fetish?"
"A fetish?" Chloe said. "Did you find a sex dungeon? Or, um, a sex painting dungeon?"
"It's a whole museum's worth of art," Peaches said breathlessly. "I think that's a Michelangelo!"
She wished more than ever that the resolution on the camera Chelsea carried was better.
"Oh," Chloe said, disappointed.
"Here," Chelsea breathed. On a table in the centre of the room was a tube that Peaches knew contained a rolled-up canvas.
Peaches watched as Chelsea carefully uncapped the tube and slid the canvas out. She unrolled the top of it, just a bit. To Peaches' eye, and taking into account the camera, it looked authentic. Which didn't mean it wasn't a very good forgery, of course, but there was no way Peaches was going to be able to tell unless she had her hands on the painting itself.
Her heart was fluttering in her throat. Chelsea was holding a lost da Vinci masterpiece in her hands. The Artist.
"Can you unroll it a bit more?" Peaches said, even though she knew they didn't have time. "I just want to see his face."
There was a shocked silence.
"I thought this was a self-portrait," Chelsea said at last.
"It is," Peaches managed to say.
"Oh. My. God," Chelsea whispered. "She's so pretty!"
"Wait," Chloe said. "You mean -- Leonardo da Vinci was a lady?"
"Is that what The Da Vinci Code was about?" Chelsea added.
"I knew Eagleson was a creep!" Peaches said. "This must be why he's been so desperate for no one else to get their hands on this painting! He wanted to keep this a secret -- along with all these other masterpieces."
"That rotten jerk!" Chloe exclaimed.
"All right, girls," Chelsea said determinedly. "Change of plan. We need to share this with the world."
Half an hour later, an arrow punctured the front right tire of the black sedan carrying two Interpol agents. Three more arrows rapidly followed, piercing each of the other tires. The missiles had very clearly originated from the villa, and the agents took that as an excuse to call for back-up and infiltrate the house. The guards were surprisingly bewildered by the accusations, and attempted to refuse them entry. When the agents searched the house, they discovered a door propped open leading to a hidden study where they discovered a treasure trove of lost and stolen art pieces. Among them, prominently displayed, was a Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait.
Eagleson was discovered snoring soundly in his office chair. He had apparently taken sleeping pills, although he couldn't remember doing so. There was a micro recorder on the desk with a pink post-it on it that said: Listen to me! :) It contained a long recording of him attempting to hold up his end of conversation with several unidentified female voices, and admitting to know the whereabouts of the da Vinci as well as his connections to Les Hommes.
Interpol could not confirm on the spot that the portrait in the secret vault was the lost da Vinci self-portrait, but the woman in the painting smiled down at them as if she knew something they didn't. It was authenticated by experts several days later, and caused a furor around the world. In a surprising act of generosity, Xavier gifted the portrait to the Louvre; he was arrested two days later for attempting to sell diamonds to an undercover CIA operative. The diamonds turned out to be fake.
Of the three international con artists Interpol had expected to find at the villa in the first place, there was no sign.
Peaches took a sip of her fresh mojito and sighed happily. Making drinks was one of the few reasons Chelsea would voluntarily enter a kitchen, and she made a truly delicious one.
Chelsea dropped a quick kiss on the top of Peaches' head, and slid gracefully in the chair next to her. Chloe grinned at them both from across the glass table in their breakfast nook.
"I still think the Picasso Museum would have been worth staying another night in Barcelona," Peaches said.
"We can go back sometime," Chelsea said. "As soon as Interpol officially clears us."
Luckily that was expected to be any day now. Eagleson had tied himself up into a pretty tight knot.
"Can't we go somewhere else first?" Chloe said. "I was thinking Tokyo."
Chloe shrugged, and casually fingered an arrow. Peaches could see how happy she'd been to be reunited with her entire weapons cache. "I just happen to know of a St Trinian's girl who needs help getting her stolen inheritance back."
Peaches drew in her breath. Chelsea looked up in surprise. "You mean -- pulling a con?" she said.
"I think we proved we've still got what it takes, don't you think?"
Chelsea grinned. "It was fun," she said.
A small shiver went down Peaches' spine. She'd known it couldn't have just been her who felt that same old thrill of excitement, but it was good to have confirmation.
"I could be convinced," she said, keeping her voice even. "But I'd like to be able to come back home after. So -- nothing that keeps us on the run, okay?"
Chelsea and Chloe were grinning at her.
"So you're saying no more Venezuelas," Chelsea said.
"I think we can find the right balance," Chloe added. "How's your Japanese?"
"Terrible," Peaches said, and she was grinning right back. The idea was risky, but she had the best team in the world on her side. She raised her glass, and Chelsea and Chloe raised theirs too. "But I'm ready to practice."