Flattening herself against the crumbling stucco, she waited until the two gamblers finished their match and stumbled off to the bar. Then she slipped into 1001 Nights and made her way to the dartboard in the rear.
She peered at the bull’s-eye. There were just a few holes, some of which looked like they had been made by knives and not darts. She reached behind the board. Nothing but wall — rough plaster, no secret compartment.
Okay, wrong dartboard. But there had to be plenty of others in the Ancienne Medina. Too many. And the only way to find the right one was a door-to-door search.
A voice too close to her ear said, “Would the young lady care to challenge an expert?”
Grace was back out on the street before she could formulate a refusal. She wasn’t sure why she was so scared. After all, hadn’t she just crash-landed a plane in the desert? Yet it took all her resolve to get her into Scheherazade next door. Belly-dancer music spilled out from a broken window. Oh, joy.
The next three hours saw her in and out of some of the sleaziest nightspots in all of North Africa. She examined dartboards of various shapes, sizes, and degrees of disrepair, stained with food, grease, and even, she suspected, blood. The bull’s-eyes yielded nothing.
The search was making her nauseous. It was getting late. A thirteen-year-old American girl in some of these places attracted attention. It was only a matter of time before she became a curiosity or, worse, a target. Maybe General Patton was right. Her job was done. It was crazy for her to try to take this any further in such a strange and dangerous environment. Especially since she had no way of knowing which of Casablanca’s hundreds of taverns she sought.
Her eyes fell on the very last neon sign on the winding street:
Her mind raced back to the Morse code message: Torch is more than it seems.
She had always interpreted it as a reference to Operation Torch. But it could just as easily have meant: Torch is more than the name of the invasion; it marks the location of the bull’s-eye.
The Torch Singer Café seemed busier than the others. That might have been because it was long and narrow, more like a hallway than a tavern. It had a tiny stage for a lone performer, and — she checked very carefully — no dartboard.
Disappointment. She’d been so sure.
And then she noticed the back door, partially hidden behind a trolley piled high with dishes. A fly-specked window overlooked an isolated alley. The dark courtyard was dominated by a large bronze sculpture of some kind of animal.
She strained for night sight, taking in the stout, powerful body and curved horns.
Bull’s eye — not the kind on a dartboard but the actual eye of a bull!
She pushed the trolley out of the way and heaved at the sticking door, which came open in a shower of ancient paint chips. Examining the statue up close, she spotted it instantly. One eye was a rounded piece of green glass. The other socket was empty.
“They beat us to it,” said a deep voice from the shadows.
Grace wheeled. She didn’t recognize him at first in tan slacks and a pale blue shirt — civilian clothes. But there, out of uniform, stood George S. Patton.
“General — what are you doing here?”
Patton smiled grimly. “Same as you, my dear. You’re a true Cahill, Grace, sneaking out under the noses of my entire staff. You’ll be a great asset, even though you’re not much for doing what you’re told.”
She could not be distracted. “What happened to the bull’s eye? Who beat us to it?”
The general raised his eyebrows. “The Vespers, of course. They always seem to be a step ahead of us.”
Grace was skeptical. “We Cahills are the most powerful family in human history.”
“We are, we are,” Patton said quickly. “But the Vespers have one advantage over us. They’re not a family. They recruit only the best and the brightest — ruthless geniuses of diabolical brilliance. While we Cahills are held back by infighting among the family branches, the Vespers can be completely and perfectly united behind their goal:” — his steely eyes gleamed — “world domination. Yes, they’re our rivals, but there is much to admire about them.”
“No,” whispered Grace, devastated. She had come so far, risked so much — and at that, she was luckier than poor Drago. How could Patton just give up? Cahills didn’t do that!
“But this Vesper agent” — she persisted — “he could still be in Casablanca. He might have only beaten us by five minutes! We have to find him! You’ve got a whole army at your command. We could catch him, and search him — it’s a ring he took, right?”
“I admire your spirit, cousin,” Patton told her. “Don’t worry about a thing. When I leave Casablanca, I guarantee that I’ll have the ring. Now, come along. My jeep is waiting.”
As he turned to take her arm, Grace caught a glimpse of his breast pocket. It bulged, concealing something just about the size of the bull’s empty eye socket. With a manufactured sigh, she slumped against him, making sure to brush the mystery object beneath the fabric of his shirt. Hard, probably metal, with a rounded band.
Holding in the shock and rage she felt, she followed him out of the alley and got into the back of his jeep. The general had no way of knowing that this slip of a girl had discovered his secret.
Yes, the Vespers had beaten the Cahills to the ring. And, yes, Patton would not leave Casablanca without it.
How was that possible?
The Vesper was Patton himself.
Grace’s first challenge: bury her anger. Nothing must be allowed to interfere with her thinking.
In the next suite of rooms, she knew, Patton was asleep for the night, enjoying the double triumph of a successful invasion and a Vesper victory. The importance of the ring had to be colossal. Operation Torch had three landing points. Patton must have persuaded the entire US Army to choose Casablanca as one of them just to get himself to the bull’s eye. Ruthless geniuses, he had called the Vespers. It was all too true. And Old Blood and Guts was the most ruthless of the lot.
But this wasn’t over yet.
Once again, she left her room via the window, this time shuffling along the narrow ledge that circled the house. Moving her bare feet an inch at a time, she edged toward the balcony that was outside the main bedchamber — the general’s suite. It was a warm night and the French doors were open. She slipped inside, walking lightly. To her right, she could hear Patton’s deep breathing. To her left was the dressing room, with the general’s uniforms hanging in military precision.
She found the pale blue shirt he’d been wearing last night and reached eagerly for the pocket.
Don’t panic. It stands to reason he’d keep it close….
She glided into the bedchamber, the rich rug absorbing any sound she might have made. She scrutinized the nightstand. There was a pitcher of water and a half-full glass. Holding her breath, she slid open the drawer. A gold watch, nothing more.
Leaning over the bed, she tried to see his hands. Oh, what would she do if he was wearing it? But his fingers were bare.
Her eyes fell on a wooden valet, which held his clothing for the morning — a dress uniform with a chest full of decorations. He certainly wanted everyone to see the evidence of his heroic career. Those medals were more important to him than anything — except maybe the ring.
Grace’s eyes narrowed, and she moved in for a closer look. What better place to hide a piece of jewelry than amid all that brass and gold?
She stared. There it was, between a French Croix de Guerre and his Purple Heart. It was fastened to a red-white-and-blue ribbon and pinned to the jacket — just one award among dozens.
She removed it, taking another medal from the end and filling in the empty space. Pocketing her prize, she quickly and silently flitted back out the window and returned to her room via the ledge. At last, she examined the focus of so much attention from both Cahills and Vespers.
It was about the size of a man’s class ring, yellow gold. Around the band was a peculiar design of embossed ridges and tiny slots. It wasn’t much to look at, so it must have had some hidden function or meaning.
Never mind what it is. The important thing is you have it, and Patton doesn’t….
Now the trick would be to sneak it out of Casablanca before the general realized it was missing.
She stepped out into the hall, where she was immediately challenged by the sentry at Patton’s door.
“Sorry, miss. I’m not supposed to let you leave.”
“Oh, I’m not leaving,” Grace replied airily. “I’m just going down to the dispensary for an aspirin.” She hefted her cast. “My arm is very sore.”
The soldier nodded sympathetically and waved her on.
She breezed down the stairs and into the room where the doctor had set her arm. From an instrument tray, she found a scalpel and began to dig a trench in the hard plaster on the underside of her cast. She worked furiously. If this took too long, the sentry would come looking for her. When the hole was big enough, she jammed the ring inside and wet a length of plaster bandage. She wrapped it over the ring, shaping and smoothing it so it would blend in with the rest of her cast. Tidying as best she could, she returned just as the sentry was beginning to descend the stairs in search of her.
“Find your aspirin, miss?”
“Yes, thanks. I had a hard time getting the cap off with just one hand.”
The hall clock said 3:30. Two and a half hours to her flight.
Sleep tight, General. Sweet dreams.
The first thing General Patton noticed the next morning was that his Bronze Star was in the wrong place.
Unacceptable. Even the lowliest buck private in the Western Task Force knew better than to mess with a commander’s medals.
He bellowed for his aide, but before the first syllable had passed his lips, he knew. The ring was gone.
It was the girl, of course. She was really something.
Still, she wasn’t going to get away with it.
His aide burst into the room. “Yes, General!”
“Call the airfield! Grace Cahill’s plane is not to take off from Casablanca!”
The man blanched. “It’s already gone, sir. Miss Grace was anxious to get moving, so we took her to the airfield early. She was the only passenger and —”
“I want that plane turned around and the little witch brought to me in chains!” the general howled.
The aide winced. “She has already landed in Lisbon — under Portuguese jurisdiction. I’m sorry, General. There’s nothing we can do.”
“Get out!” Patton rasped, and the officer ran for his life.
Beaten — and by a thirteen-year-old girl!
Those Cahills! They had been a thorn in the side of the Vesper organization for more than four centuries.
He was about to go up against the entire German army, but he feared it less than that cursed family!
They had regained control of Gideon Cahill’s ring. And now they had a new champion — a girl with the courage and guile to outflank George S. Patton.
At the airfield outside London, Grace hugged baby Fiske and tried to smile at Beatrice. Her sister wasn’t buying any of it. “What do you have to say for yourself, Grace? Where have you been? What happened to your arm?”