Part 1

 “Listen to this, Matthew,” Madeleine Wheeler exclaimed.  “You won’t believe it.”  She folded the classified section of the Gazet van Antwerpen that she was holding in order to concentrate her attention on one ad.

Her husband lowered his copy of the Times of London, and looked across the café table at her.  His green eyes sparkled as he gazed at his beautiful wife.

Quand l'amour est eternal – un diamant lui dit toute; la vente des diamants detaches d'une qualité excellente et d'un bon prix, venu direct d'Afrique du Sud élimine le marchand ou l'intermédiaire. Pour plus de détails, appeler 03/342-66-63,” she read. 

“And it means …?”  Matthew understood some French, but he was far from fluent.  On the other hand, his wife spoke French like a native.  Her proficiency in languages made her an invaluable asset to his business, and she knew it.  Even though most of his international business dealings were conducted in English, Maddie could sometimes pick up inflections or offhand comments that he missed.

“It means:  ‘When love is eternal, a diamond tells her all.  Loose diamonds for sale, excellent quality and price, direct from South Africa.  Eliminate the middleman!   For details, call 03/342-66-63’,” she translated.  “Those last seven digits are the numbers that correspond to ‘diamond’.”

“And why did I have to stop reading the latest news from the London markets to hear that?”  Matthew’s russet eyebrows lifted in inquiry.  “You don’t need another diamond to tell you my love is eternal, do you?”  He grinned and blew her a kiss, covering her left hand with his right.

“Matthew, of course not!”  Maddie’s eyes glowed with affection for her handsome redheaded husband, and she laughed in delight at his teasing.  “But you know that I promised to donate a piece of jewelry for the hospital fundraising benefit auction!  Here we are, in the diamond capital of the world, and we’ve got a chance to get a nice piece at a bargain price.”  

Gesticulating with graceful swoops of her hands, she drew his attention to their surroundings.  Diagonally across from their café table in the southeastern corner of Antwerp’s Groenplaats, the spire of lang=NL>Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal – the Cathedral of Our Lady – pierced the unusually blue sky.   It was an uncharacteristically bright and sunny morning in May, and the busy plaza was less crowded than usual.  Flicking her fingers to indicate the whole of the paved square, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and began to rummage in her bag for her cell phone.

“I’d be very suspicious about anyone claiming to sell fine quality diamonds through a classified ad,” Matthew said, his eyebrows drawing together to create a vertical crease over his nose.

“I don’t see the harm in calling to arrange a meeting, as long as it’s in a public place and you’re with me.  Between the two of us, I think we could identify a diamond and gauge its quality pretty well.”  Maddie was poised to enter the number into her phone.   

“Go ahead, I don’t mind.  But I’ll be surprised if you’re able to get a good deal on diamonds from that ad.”  Matthew shrugged and returned his attention to his newspaper.

While he read his paper, Maddie studied the plaza with a lively interest.  While there were fewer people on the Groenplaats than usual, the clucking of pigeons added liveliness to the scene.  Small trees, their spindly trunks protected by metal cages, were planted at regular intervals about the square.  The green of their newly-unfurled leaves, combined with groupings of potted tulips, made it clear that spring had arrived in Antwerp. Umbrella-topped tables of the various café lang=NL>s added bright dots of color in each corner.  The famous statue of Rubens proudly strode the center of the square, scrubbed clean just this morning of its accumulation of pigeons’ droppings. 

Stretching away from the Groenplaats was the Meir shopping district, famous throughout Belgium.  Maddie looked forward to investigating the shops there, after attending a meeting with Matthew at the Boerentoren, or Farmer’s Tower, as the KBC Bank building was nicknamed.  She knew, however, that Matthew had hoped to spend the shopping hours in their suite at the Antwerp Hilton. 

Returning her attention to the ad, Maddie entered the number and waited for an answer.  After a moment, she removed the phone from her ear and stared at the screen display.

“That’s odd,” she remarked.  “‘We’re sorry, the number you have called is not accepting calls at this time.’  That’s what I got when I tried the number in the ad.”

“Why is it odd?  That’s exactly what I thought would happen,” Matthew replied.  “I told you it was too good to be true.”  He took a sip of his coffee, sending her a quizzical glance over the rim of the cup.

“I think it’s odd that the message is in English.” Maddie snapped her phone shut and dropped it back into her bag.  Her first flicker of curiosity had been kindled by the failed call.  Leaning forward, she lowered her voice and reminded him, “Belgium has three official languages – Dutch, French, and German.  Even though nearly everyone speaks English, I think it’s odd that the mobile telephone service plays a recorded message in English rather than in one of the official languages.”

Now she had Matthew’s attention.  “I agree, that’s a bit surprising.  There’s definitely something fishy about the whole thing, Maddie.”  He frowned.  “Whatever you do, don’t make any contact with the person who placed that ad unless I’m with you.”  He reached across the table and covered her slim hand again with his larger one.  “I might be overreacting, but you’re too special to me.  I don’t want you taking any chances.”

Madeleine smiled at her husband.  “Don’t worry, darling, I won’t!  But if I can’t find a bargain on diamonds from that ad, I’ll have to do some serious shopping this afternoon.  With all of the diamond markets here in Antwerp, there’s no better place to find that piece for the hospital’s auction.”

“Maybe I’d better go with you,” Matthew suggested.  “I don’t know if I want you walking around by yourself with a diamond bracelet or necklace.  Pickpockets are everywhere.”

“Wonderful!  I’ve already made a list of some of the smaller jewelers near the Meir.  If we get off the main road, we may find a bargain.”  Maddie beamed at him.  “Let’s go back to the hotel and get ready for some serious shopping.  The game’s afoot, Watson!”  She swatted him playfully with her paper and stood up.  Matthew grinned and stood himself, tucking her hand under his arm.

Later …

“Juwelier Maas en Zoon, Goudsmit en Diamantair” read the enameled black metal sign hanging above the door of a small jeweler’s shop on Israeleitenstraat.  Painted in golden script across the inside of the window were the words:

Kwaliteitsjuwelen     ~     Bijouterie de Qualité     ~     Qualitätschmuck

“‘Jeweler Maas and Son, Goldsmith and Diamond-cutter’,” Maddie translated, pointing to the sign.  She continued, “In the window, it says, ‘Fine jewelry’, in Dutch, French, and German.” Squeezing her husband’s arm in excitement, she concluded, “This looks like a small, family business, and maybe the owner will be easy to talk to.”   

Matthew pressed the latch and held the door open for his wife, and a chiming bell announced their presence.  A small man wearing a skullcap and prayer shawl was bent over the counter, a loupe to his eye as he used a magnifying glass to inspect a ring behind the counter.  He looked up as the Wheelers entered his store, and straightened slowly.

Maddie was still blinking from the contrast between the bright sun outdoors and the dim gloom of the cramped store.  The window held a small display of diamond jewelry as well as a necklace of what she had recognized as fine matched pearls.  Inside, a display case below the counter was lit to show off a small selection of precious gems in settings of gold and platinum.  After her eyes accustomed themselves to the dimness, she studied the jewelry as well as the interior of the shop, allowing Matthew to greet the proprietor.  While the precious stones and their settings were bright and the glass display windows gleamed, she noted that the tiled floor was laced with cracks, and that the section in front of the door was beginning to crumble.   A cobweb was visible in the far corner near the ceiling.

“Hello!  Beautiful weather we’re having, isn’t it?”  Matt uttered the banal greeting with a smile.

“Goede middag, u bent geïnteresseerd in onze unieke sieraad collectie?”   Carefully placing both the ring and his loupe into a drawer and locking it, the store owner returned the smile as he wished them a good day and asked if they were interested in his shop’s unique jewelry collection.  

“Ja, ik ben opzoek naar een … halsketting of … armband met diamanten,” Maddie said, hesitating a bit as she searched for the Dutch words for ‘bracelet’ and ‘pendant’. 

“U bent Amerikaanse en spreekt Nederlands?”  The man seemed surprised, but very pleased, that the American couple spoke his language.  Maddie imagined that was something that didn’t happen every day, and she pressed her advantage, while admitting she was less than fluent in Dutch.

“Slechts een paar woorden.”   She held up her thumb and forefinger, indicating a small amount.  “Parlez-vous Français?”

“Oui, Madame.  Je m’appelle Isaac Maas.  Je suis le propriétaire.”

“Bonjour, Monsieur. Je m’appelle Madeleine Wheeler.   Vous est le père ou le fils?”  Maddie felt comfortable engaging the jeweler in conversation, since there were no other customers inside the store.  She hoped that if she could learn more about the owners, she might be able to use the information to bargain for a better deal.  Since Isaac Maas was as comfortable speaking French as she was, they continued their conversation in that language while Matt prowled around the tiny shop.

“I am the son.  My father, Reuben, was sheltered by a Belgian family in Brussels during the Second World War.  After the war, he came here, as did many other Jews.  Antwerp received them well, and since the war ended, the Jewish diamond merchants have become the dominant figures in the diamond industry.”  Isaac Maas spoke humbly, but with evident pride in his heritage.  “My father built this business from nothing, and with no financial backing.  He worked hard to establish the name of Maas in the diamond business.”

“So, Monsieur Maas, do you have a son yourself to whom you will hand down your business?” Maddie asked.

“I have two sons,” replied the jeweler.  “My oldest, Levi, is a scholar, not a tradesman.  He is not interested in the business.  My second son, Jens … he is interested in other things.” 

“That’s too bad,” Maddie sympathized.  “I hate to see old family businesses pass out of the family.  We have a son and a daughter, but neither of them seems inclined to continue our business.” 

“I hope I have many more years here, but yes, it’s difficult to maintain the business alone.  My wife died two years ago, and if I go to the markets, I have to close the store.  A closed store does no business.”  A shadow passed over M. Maas’ face as he spoke, but after the briefest of pauses, he smiled again.  “But I must not keep you from your sightseeing by talking about my problems.  Is there anything I can show you today, Madame Wheeler?”     

“Yes, there is.”  Maddie waved toward the display cases.  “I’m looking for a diamond bracelet, pendant, or brooch, to donate for a charitable auction,” she explained.  “The piece must be beautiful, but not too ornate.  It should be something that would appeal to many people.  I’m willing to spend some money on it, but I’d like for it to have potential to auction for more than the price I’m paying – otherwise I could just as easily make a direct donation to the charity.”

“I see,” Isaac Maas murmured, nodding his head and stroking his beard as he appeared to meditate on her specifications.

“I don’t really see a piece that fits my needs,” Maddie apologized.  “Do you have any pieces that aren’t on display?”

“There are a couple of items I’m working on now,” the jeweler replied.  “I’ve had problems acquiring the quality of diamonds I needed, however, and they are not finished.”

“May I see them?”  Maddie was more and more intrigued by the shabby little business.

Matthew had finished inspecting every ring, necklace, and bracelet on display, and now he came to stand next to Maddie again.  She tucked her hand into his arm and lifted her face to him with a bright smile.  “Did you hear, Matthew?  Monsieur Maas has some pieces he’s making right now.”

“Pouvons-nousles voir?” Matthew’s French was not good, and his accent was execrable as he asked to view the unfinished pieces.  Maddie winced, but M. Maas’ face remained impassive as he considered the request.

“Normally, I don’t show pieces until they are finished,” he finally explained.  “In this case I will make an exception.  However, I will tell you that my store has a good alarm system, and the police are less than two minutes distant from here.”   His dark eyes communicated an unspoken warning.  After pulling down dark shades over the windows and the glass door, the jeweler opened a small safe concealed behind a painting on the back wall.  From within the safe he removed a black velvet drawstring bag, and laid another piece of black velvet upon the counter.

Maddie stared intently, willing her eyes to focus in the dimmed light.  While the shop had not been bright before, now it was positively gloomy.  M. Maas switched on an overhead light that she had not noticed, and instantly, she was able to see a handful of loose diamonds glittering against the black cloth.  While none were extremely large, there were at least two dozen of different sizes, all round-cut, winking and sparkling against the inky background of velvet.   

“You have some beautiful stones there,” Matthew declared.  “Do you mind if I examine one of them?”

“Be my guest,” invited the jeweler, handing him a pair of tweezers and his own loupe.  Matthew used the tweezers to lift one diamond from the group and held it up to the light.  He scrutinized it from several different angles, dazzling Maddie with flashes of colored light as he turned the stone.

“Whether we buy anything else or not, I’m going to ask you to set this into a piece for my wife,” Matthew said.  “It’s nearly flawless.”

“You are right,” agreed M. Maas.  “It is unusual to have customers who are so knowledgeable about precious stones.  How did you come by your expertise?”

“My husband worked for a jeweler for several years during college,” Maddie explained proudly.  “He wanted to gain experience in many different kinds of business before choosing one field.”

“And what kind of business did you finally choose?” Maas asked, placing the selected gem into a zippered plastic bag, carefully lettering it “M. Wheeler”, and moving it to one side, away from the group of loose diamonds.

“I have my finger in a lot of different pies.”  Matthew was vague when discussing his business dealings with strangers.  “I’m here for a meeting at the KBC Bank tomorrow.”

“Perhaps there is hope for my son Jens yet,” sighed the jeweler.  “He’s been trying out many different occupations.  Perhaps one day he’ll return to the jewelry business.  Now, let me show you the two unfinished pieces.”  Once more he withdrew a small velvet bag from the safe, and dropped its contents onto the black velvet cloth. 

Maddie lifted a dainty bracelet of yellow gold, with its links forming the letters X and O.  Mounted between each link was a pair of round diamonds, each a little smaller than one-fourth carat.  However, the diamonds went only halfway around the bracelet.

“I don’t have enough of the right size diamond to complete the piece,” M. Maas explained.  “I attempted to buy some diamonds from a direct source by way of a classified ad.  It’s risky to deal with such sources, but I felt confident I could judge the quality of the diamonds, and the stones I needed were small, so perhaps less likely to be stolen.”

“Why would you buy from a classified ad when you have the top diamond market in the world right here in the city?”   Matthew’s puzzlement was obvious.

“As I said, it’s difficult to leave the shop, and with the economy being in a slump lately…  I hoped this could be a way of obtaining stock without closing for a day, and perhaps less expensive than the markets as well.”

“What happened?”  Maddie felt the beginning of a bubble of excitement inside her chest.  Could Isaac Maas’ classified ad be connected to the one she had seen in the Gazet that morning? 

“At first, I had trouble getting through to the number.  But you know how you will redial a number, thinking you mis-dialed the first time?  That’s what I did.”

“What happened?”  Maddie’s bubble of excitement was rising.

“I merely received a message that the number was not in service.  So, I decided to forget it.  A little while later, my phone rang.  It was the person from the classified ad, apologizing for his phone trouble.  He had picked up my number from his missed call list, and returned my call.  We set up a time for him to come by the shop.”  M. Maas paused and wiped his forehead with a clean handkerchief.

“He had documents that convinced me he was a legitimate diamond broker, and he showed me some diamonds that were fitted my needs exactly, as well as a couple of nicer stones.  I contracted to buy them, and turned around to the safe to get my cheque-book.  You have seen how close it is.  Never would I have dreamed anyone could make a switch behind my back.  But that is exactly what happened.  He took my cheque and left the store.  I put the diamonds into the safe – it was late and I was in a hurry to close for the day.  It was the start of the Sabbath.” 

“When did you discover that you had been cheated?”  Matthew asked.

Maas sighed again.  “Not until two days later.  I opened the safe and pulled out the new diamonds, prepared to finish the bracelet and a pendant.  The stones were matched to the real ones I had examined, but they were cubic zirconia.  Pretty for what they were, but worthless to me.”   Pulling the handkerchief out again, he removed his spectacles and wiped his eyes.  “I’m very sorry,” he apologized.  “I paid a large sum for the diamonds, and it was money I couldn’t afford to lose.”

“How awful!  Of course, you reported the swindler to the police,” Maddie exclaimed.

“Yes, but he had a two-day head start.  He had already cashed my cheque on Saturday, when I had no thought for business.  He was nondescript in his appearance, and I was not able to give a good description to the police.”  He grimaced as if in pain.  “I know I should have video surveillance, but it is something else that is outside my budget just now.  My late wife’s illness required the funds I had saved in order to update the security.”

“Do you know if anyone else was victimized by this man?”  Matthew frowned.  “He surely had an accomplice.  It’s hard to believe one person could run a scam like this.”

“Oh, yes,” M. Maas insisted, nodding his head.  “I have spoken to several other jewelers who are members of my guild.  All of them are small shopkeepers and all are having a difficult time for one reason or another.  Each had seen the ad, as I did.  Each was approached at the end of the business day, on a day before Sabbath.  Each lost money they could not afford to lose.  However, the police haven’t been able to turn up any clues.  The number I saw in the classified ad was checked against a list of mobile phone numbers by all major European providers, and they were unable to trace it.” 

“I saw an ad like the one you describe, just this morning,” Maddie said.  “I wonder if it’s the same crew.”  She tapped a well-manicured finger against her chin.  “How long ago were you robbed?”

“It has been two months,” M. Maas sighed.  “I was counting on a busy summer, with many sales to tourists.  I don’t have the funds to replace the stones that were switched.  If the police are unable to catch the swindlers, I may have to liquidate my business before Christmas, and depend on my sons to support me.  It isn’t easy to face that prospect.”  He looked so sad that Maddie’s heart went out to him.

Impulsively, she spoke up.  “If I hear from the ad, I’ll let you know, as well as report it to the police.  If they’ve been inactive for a time and are moving back into the area, perhaps they will slip up and get careless.”

“Very well, Madame Wheeler.  I thank you for wishing to help me.”  The small man bowed.  “However, if professional police detectives haven’t been able to capture the despicable criminals who cheated me, I can’t believe that you will be able to do more.” 

“It may come to nothing,” Maddie agreed.  “But I think it’s worth trying, if they do contact me.”  She shrugged.  “Now, show me your other unfinished piece.  Surely with two dozen diamonds to choose from, there is a design you can fashion for my auction piece.  Perhaps I can help you in that way, even if the criminals aren’t captured.”

She and the little jeweler bent their heads over the counter, moving the diamonds around to form various designs for a pendant or brooch, since the piece he had been making could be fashioned into either one.  Matthew added a suggestion from time to time.  Finally, they agreed on a design.   

After M. Maas sketched the design onto a piece of paper, Matthew used his credit card to make a deposit on the final price.  Then they shook hands over the counter, and Maddie and her husband bid the shopkeeper good-bye. 

Leaving the tiny shop, they headed for Antwerp’s famed shopping district.  An easy stroll of about a block’s travel brought them to The Meir, and they continued in the direction of the Centraal Station, where they could take a train back to the Antwerp Hilton after finishing shopping.  Maddie made several purchases but couldn’t get M. Maas and his problems out of her mind.

“Matthew, do you think it’s possible those swindlers may try to contact me?” she asked.

“Why not?  That’s what they did to Isaac Maas.”  Matthew mulled the idea over for a moment.  “Perhaps that’s part of their modus operandi.  Whey don’t you check your cell phone and see if you’ve had any new messages?”

They stopped at a sidewalk café and bought two lemonades while Maddie delved into the recesses of her bag for the slim folding cell phone.  Quickly she scrolled through the messages, but saw no unfamiliar numbers.  She snapped the phone shut and dropped it into her purse again with a sigh of frustration.

Later that evening…  

Maddie was startled by the chime of her phone as she undressed for bed.  Grabbing it from her bedside table, she took a deep breath before answering.  In a calm voice, she said, “Hello, this is Madeleine Wheeler.”

“I must apologize for calling so late, Madame Wheeler,” a cultured male voice said in French.  “I’ve had a problem with my phone and wasn’t able to retrieve missed calls earlier today.  Fortunately, your number was saved in the phone.”

“What is your business?”  Madeleine felt a bit snappish.  She had been waiting for this call for hours, her feet hurt, and the caller’s voice renewed her anger over M. Maas’ bad luck.  She took another deep breath and explained, “I’m not upset, it’s just that I was about to retire for the evening.  How can I help you?”

“I believe you responded to my classified ad for loose diamonds,” the caller continued.  “Are you still interested?”

“Yes, I am.  I’m interested in buying a nice piece of jewelry for a charitable donation and I thought I’d save money by buying the loose diamonds and having it made up.”  Maddie had thought about what she would say, and she was familiar with the cliché that wealthy people were known for trying to scrimp on even inexpensive purchases.  She had figured that would work in her favor, since her phone was in her own name. 

She signaled to Matt, who was emptying his pockets preparatory to undressing.  Mouthing the words, “diamond scammer” she tried to let him know that she was talking to the potential criminal who had cheated the jeweler Isaac Maas.

Matthew moved nearer at her signal in order to listen more easily.

“If you will meet me tomorrow at a secure location, I will be happy to show you some fine quality diamonds,” the man invited.  His voice was pleasant and smooth, even compelling.   With a shudder, Maddie realized that she might have been enticed by the chance of obtaining a bargain if she hadn’t learned of the scam perpetrated on Monsieur Maas.  Now, however …  

“Where do you suggest?  I’m not meeting anywhere alone with you.”  Maddie was firm.  No way was she meeting any stranger alone in Antwerp after what she had learned today.

“I’ll be happy to meet you in the lobby of the Antwerp Hilton,” the caller continued.

Maddie felt goosebumps rising on her arms.  It was bad enough that the person apparently knew her name – did he know where she was staying as well?

“No, I don’t want to meet there.  I’ll meet you at the Centraal Station.  Not tomorrow, but the following day.  My husband will be with me as well.”

“Very well.  I’ll call you tomorrow to set the location at the Centraal Station.  Do you need any more information?  I accept credit cards and can put your payment through over the internet at the time of the transactions.”

“All right.  I hope your diamonds are as fine as you say.”  Maddie paused.  “Good night, Monsieur … I didn’t catch your name.”

“Fine.  You may all me Monsieur Fine.  Good night, Madame Wheeler.  I look forward to meeting you.”

“Did you hear that, Matt?”  She shivered with a sudden chill, and rubbed the gooseflesh on her arms.  “That gang is bold!  And obviously, they are able to use technology to trace their calls and identify us.  It's pretty unsettling, if you ask me.”

“You’re absolutely right, darling.  It’s creepy.  They’ve probably already Googled you,” he said.  He paced for a moment, then turned to her with a decisive expression.  “We’ll go to the police first thing in the morning.  If there is a detective on this case of Maas’s he may be interested in what‘s happening now.  The crooks don’t seem to be able to track our movements, even if they were able to identify your phone account.”

Maddie had washed her face and was combing out her hair, having already changed from her dinner dress into a silk negligee.  “I’m certainly glad you’re here with me,” she said, putting her hands on either side of her husband’s face and stroking his lean cheeks.  His cinnamon-colored hair was as abundant as ever, although beginning to show distinguished strands of white at the temples.

“We’re on the alert, darling.  These people haven’t resorted to violence so far, and they think they’re smarter than anyone else.  So I think we have the advantage at this point.”  He drew her into a close embrace, and she shuddered with pleasure as his hands stroked her back and his lips nuzzled hers.  “Let’s go to bed, love.  We may need all the rest we can get in order to outfox this ring of thieves.” 

She allowed him to lead her to bed, but rest eluded her for a long time. 

The next morning …

Maddie awakened as the first slivers of pale morning light dispelled the velvety darkness of their hotel room.  Stretching luxuriously, she felt languid and utterly relaxed.  Matt was tangled in the sheets alongside her, and she smiled, thinking of the way he'd been able to make her forget her anxieties about the mysterious caller who might be involved with a diamond scam.   Remembering the call, she vowed to keep those thoughts at bay long enough to enjoy breakfast with the love of her life.

The weather was more typical of an Antwerpian spring than that of the previous day.  A fine, misty rain diffused the outlines of both human and vehicular traffic outside the ground-floor restaurant of the Antwerp Hilton as Maddie and Matthew enjoyed a light breakfast.   

“You were marvelous last night, darling,” she said, gazing into his eyes.  This morning, they were the color of evergreens in sunlight, and her heart beat a little faster when he lifted her hand and kissed it. 

“So were you, Maddie-my-love.  As always, it was easy to remember why I married you.”  Matthew grinned and continued.  “Of course, your daddy’s shotgun was pretty convincing, too,” he teased.

“Matthew!  I’m glad your children aren’t here to hear that!”  But she smiled back at him anyway; the comment was a longstanding joke between them.  She and Matthew sipped their coffee in companionable silence while they skimmed the day’s newspapers, searching for new ads for loose diamonds.  

Maddie gazed out the window at the people hurrying by, heads down and umbrellas up.  “I suppose we’d better take a taxi from here to the police station,” she suggested.  “It’s hard to say how long it might take to walk, and we’ve got to make it back in time for the meeting at KBC Bank at eleven o’clock.”

“Yes, and it’s eight-thirty now.” Matthew glanced at his watch.  “Shall we go up to the room and freshen up before calling a cab?”

“Yes, let’s.”  Maddie crumpled her fine linen napkin and laid it on her plate, puckering her forehead in a frown.  “I’d like to take a pad and paper to make some notes, as well.”

A quarter of an hour later, they were sitting in the hotel’s lounge, awaiting the arrival of the taxi their concierge had called.  Maddie felt a fluttering in her stomach, and discreetly reached into her purse for a hanky to blot her sweaty palms.

The hotel bellhop bowed as he approached their table.  “Monsieur et Madame, your taxi has arrived.”

At the police headquarters …

“May we speak with the detective investigating the case in which the jeweler Isaac Maas was swindled of a significant sum?  My husband and I have information that we believe may be helpful.”   Maddie was again speaking French, after apologizing that her Dutch was less than fluent. 

“I’ll radio the detective,” the middle-aged receptionist offered.  “Please take a seat while you wait.”  She indicated a bench against the wall of the cramped reception area, and Matt and Maddie sat down.  Matthew began to read the latest copy of The Wall Street Journal, and Maddie opened her copy of La Libre, the French-language Belgian daily newspaper, to the classified section.  Scanning the ads, she soon came upon the one she sought.  “To say ‘I love you’, use diamonds!  Fine loose diamonds for sale, direct from broker.  Call now for appointment to view numerous cut stones of different sizes.  03/342-66-63.”

“Look, Matthew, it’s the same number,” she murmured to him.  Pulling out her cell phone, she checked the number of her caller from the previous night.  The number was different, as she had remembered.  She had tried to call back right after breakfast, but the call was not picked up.  Maddie found herself wondering if the man had called from a public phone booth.  Busy jotting down a few notes related to the mysterious diamond dealer, she didn’t respond at first when the receptionist tried to get her attention.

“Monsieur et Madame Wheeler.”  The voice held a hint of impatience, as if she had repeated herself once too often.

“I’m so sorry, we were buried in our newspapers,” Maddie apologized.  She and Matthew slid their papers into her bag and stepped over to the reception window.

Monsieur Reynoud will see you now.  He is the lead detective on the case.”  She activated a buzzer and admitted them into an inner hallway, where Maddie saw a man who might have been a well-to-do diamond merchant himself approaching them.

Erect and leanly built, he had a full head of iron-grey hair and bright blue eyes.  His well-cut suit in a fine grade of charcoal-grey wool, light blue shirt, and subtly patterned red silk tie gave him the look of a well-to-do businessman.  A gold ring with three small channel-set diamonds glittered on his wedding finger.

“How may I assist you?” Detective Reynoud asked, bowing as he directed them into a small room furnished with three chairs and a table.  “Do you have information on the Maas case?”  His words were courteous, but his tone expressed doubt.

Matthew extended one large freckled hand and shook the detective’s slender, manicured one, introducing himself and Maddie.  “My name is Matthew Wheeler, and this is my wife, Madeleine,” he said, drawing her forward.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mijnheer Wheeler,” the detective replied in lightly accented English.  “And you also, Mevrouw.  He took Maddie’s slender hand and raised it to his lips, bowing again and brushing the merest trace of a kiss across it.  She noticed that his nails were not only well-groomed, they held a faint sheen of clear polish.  After a second’s hesitation, he lowered her hand and straightened again.

“I am Detective Philip Reynoud.  Please sit down.”  Reynoud had pulled a chair out for Maddie before Matthew could do so, and she offered him a dazzling smile as she sat down.  Matthew seated himself next to her, and Reynoud took the chair across the scarred table. 

The dapper detective took a handkerchief from his suit jacket pocket and dusted off his own seat before settling his Armani-clad posterior, rather gingerly, into it. After staring with suspicion at the scarred table, as if he were ready to accuse it of harboring germs, he cleared his throat.  “The jeweler Maas is not the only one who was taken in by the classified ad scheme.  Several other jewelers here in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg experienced a very similar scam.  However, we have been unable to track the mobile phone numbers used for contact between the criminals and the victims.  Interpol has been involved since the scheme has been successful in several locations throughout Europe.  If you have new information, I would be pleased to learn of it.  Antwerp is famed for its diamond industry, and I do not wish to have its reputation sullied as a spot where a legitimate dealer is likely to be swindled.”

Reynoud stopped speaking, and gazed at them with steely determination in the bluest eyes Maddie had ever seen.  His beautiful hands rested quietly on the table, but she thought she detected tension behind his calm façade.

“Monsieur Détective,” she began in French.  “I speak French well, but have only a little Flemish.  We can converse in French if you like. My husband understands well enough, but doesn’t speak fluently.”

“Bien, Madame, s’il vous voulez.  I write English better than I speak, but I think we could communicate.  However, I’ll be happy to speak French.”

Given the detective’s permission, Maddie began to relate the story of seeing the classified ad and attempting to contact the person who placed it.  “The contact information was bad – as I thought – because I was given a message in English that the number I had dialed was not in service.  After a few seconds it occurred to me that it was very odd that a mobile phone service provider in Belgium – or really anywhere in Europe – would have that recording in English.  English with an American accent.”

“An English recording with an American accent,” Reynoud echoed.  He had drawn a notepad from his pocket and scribbled a few notes on it.   “Can you remember the exact wording of the message?”  His blue eyes bored into her.

Maddie closed her eyes in order to concentrate better.  She tried to recall the exact message.  “‘We’re sorry, the number you have called is not accepting calls at this time.’  That was it.”

She described their trip to the jeweler’s and how they had learned Isaac Maas had been swindled through a scheme that resembled the classified ad process.  “The odd thing was this…” She hesitated just a moment, her teeth nipping the inside of her lower lip. Would he believe her?  Once more, she met the alert, intelligent gaze of the detective. Yes.  He would.  “He reached a message that the number was not in service, but later on was contacted by someone who claimed to be a direct diamond dealer.  Then, last night, I received a call from someone claiming the same thing.  That made me wonder if the two events were connected, but my call didn’t come from the same number that was in the ad.” 

“The scenario seems to fit,” agreed Reynoud.  “Do you still have the number saved on your mobile phone?  In addition, did you agree to meet the caller?”

Maddie nodded.  “Yes, I have the number, and I’ll give it to you.  And yes, I did say I’d meet him – in a public place, the Centraal Station.  He is to contact me today to set the exact location.”

Mon Dieu, Madame Wheeler!  Have you no caution about meeting a stranger in a foreign country?  Antwerp is not a small village.”  The police detective’s face flushed crimson.  He leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table until his knuckles turned white.

Maddie was taken aback by Reynoud’s intensity, but refused to allow herself to be intimidated.  Drawing a calming breath, she shrugged.  “I’ve lived in New York City,” she said, as if that should be explanation enough.  “Of course, I’m not going to take stupid chances, but my husband will be with me, and now you know about it as well.  That’s why we are here.  I decided perhaps – with your help – we could outwit these scoundrels.  Not only is Monsieur Maas due to be compensated for the nine carats of cubic zirconia for which he paid the price of fine diamonds, but there are others, too, who were cheated.”  Her eyes flashed as she thought about the struggling jeweler and the sadness in his eyes when he spoke of losing his business.

“I’ve been thinking, Maddie,” Matthew interjected.  “Do you think the ad and the phone number may be some sort of code?”

“What do you mean?” asked Reynoud, breaking back into English as he turned to Matthew.

“Just this:  the thieves place the ad, with a phone number, in several papers in different countries.  For example, yesterday my wife found an ad in the Gazet.  Today we checked four different papers, and the same ad appeared in La Libre, Le Monde, De Telegraaf, and the Luxemburger Wort.  The phone number is the same, perhaps, and the contact information is seemingly bad.  But what if the call, is in fact, routed to another number which alerts the crew that a possible new mark, or victim, has made contact?”  Matthew’s green eyes darkened as he described the potential scenario, and Reynoud pulled out his notepad again.   Matthew paused while the detective scrawled a few more notes, and once he saw that Reynoud was up to speed again, he continued. 

“Hours of delay give the gang’s techno geeks time and opportunity to Google the caller, after which – if it seems like a good mark – they return the call.  The ad might even tell the mules, or transporters, of the cubic zirconia where to bring the latest load from the manufacturing lab, or maybe where to pick up the money after the switch is made.”

Monsieur et Madame, your deductions are in line with some thoughts I have had.”  Reynoud was silent for a few moments, clicking his pen in and out without seeming to notice what he was doing.  His eyes gazed off into the distance, narrowed. Straightening, he let out a soft sound that might have been either a curse or a sigh. “As you may see,” he said at last, still toying with his pen, “I have been trying to establish an identity as a jeweler, in order to attempt to make contact.  However, evidently my cover doesn’t extend far enough into the past.”  He smiled and shrugged, negligently flicking his fingers in the manner that would, anywhere on the planet, mark him as French.  “I have been convinced that the gang is using their victims’ mobile numbers to gain identifying information, and to select victims who have the necessary funds and financial backing, as well as the desire to find a bargain.”

“Since we’ve been promised a meeting, why don’t we act as decoys for the police to capture the thieves?” Maddie suggested.  “They’ve got a totally legitimate victim – er, customer – and if they don’t take the bait, you’re no worse off than you were before.”

“That’s right,” Matthew agreed.  “Your men can be strategically placed around the Centraal Station and its entrances, so there shouldn’t be any danger.”

“Ah, it is most dangerous to feel that every eventuality has been anticipated,” cautioned the detective.  “But it is a plan worth pursuing.  However, I will need to speak with my contact at Interpol.  Please, Madame, if you will, give me the number of the person who called you, as well as a number at which I may reach you later.”

Maddie dictated her own number to him before retrieving the phone once more.  She scrolled to the number and showed it to Reynoud, who copied it into his notepad.  “Now, Monsieur et Madame, return to your hotel or your meetings.  After I speak with my colleague at Interpol, I will contact you.  If the so-called diamond broker calls you before you hear from me, please try to put him off for a few more hours.  But don’t raise his suspicions, whatever you do.  We must set the trap.”



Author’s Notes

Mary 7,086 words

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. All other material on these pages copyright 2008 by MaryN/ Dianafan, Robin, and Susansuth.

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