Once a Thief


By Christopher Reich

Formats and Prices




$22.99 CAD


  1. Trade Paperback $17.99 $22.99 CAD
  2. ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
  3. Audiobook Download (Unabridged)

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 4, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Facing enemies at every turn, private spy Simon Riske dashes across Europe to find the truth behind a mysterious investor in this high-stakes international espionage series: "comparison to the Bond novels is apt in many ways." (Booklist)

Simon Riske sits in sun-dappled Napa Valley, toasting the record hundred-million-dollar sale of a rare 1963 Ferrari which he restored himself. The buyer, a sophisticated French woman, Sylvie Bettencourt, has purchased the car for an unnamed client whose anonymity she will guard at all costs. Riske enjoys her company and the flowing champagne until Sylvie’s formidable Russian bodyguard storms in, claiming the vehicle is a fake. Riske is given an ultimatum. Prove the car is the real thing…or else.
Meanwhile, in Lugano, Switzerland, Carl Bildt, banker to the rich and nefarious, is killed by a powerful car bomb, moments before he can deliver evidence to the authorities and disappear into witness protection. His beautiful and headstrong daughter, Anna, rushes to Switzerland to investigate her father’s violent death.
As Simon Riske strives to prove the Ferraris’ authenticity and look deeper into Sylvie’s past–and the identity of her client—he crosses paths with Anna Bildt and discovers they have an enemy in common.  From the bustling streets of London to a secret outpost high in the French Alps, from the freeports of Corsica to the glittering beaches of the Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast, of Sardinia, Riske and Anna find themselves players in a deadly game, where billions of dollars change hands and knowledge is paid for with your life.
Told with Reich’s signature stylish prose, clever plotting, and pulse-pounding action sequences, Once a Thief, is sure to appeal to longtime fans of the series and newcomers alike. Riske may be a bit older, showing a little wear and tear, but his desire to get the job done at any cost is stronger than ever.



Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.

Tap here to learn more.

Part I


Chapter 1

He was late.

Carl Bildt locked the front door of the bank and set off at a brisk pace along the Via Nassa. At 7:15 in the evening, the narrow, cobblestone walk bristled with activity. Crowds of summer tourists window-shopped, ate gelato, and sipped iced tea. Most wore shorts and open shirts, their faces tanned by the August sun. Bildt paid them not the slightest attention. His mind was focused on a more important matter: staying alive one more day.

He continued through a covered galleria and across the Piazza della Riforma. He was a large man, fifty-five years old, tall and broad of beam, with a thick head of silver hair and a sailor's windburned complexion. As always, he was dressed as befitted a bank manager: tailored charcoal suit, white shirt, burgundy tie, his Bally lace-ups immaculately polished. He was a punctual man in a punctual country, and as he walked, he checked his watch repeatedly, as if hoping to find its hands frozen or, even better, moving in the wrong direction. Bildt frowned. No such luck.

He had made his decision. There was no turning back.

He came to Riva Giocondo Albertolli, the thoroughfare running adjacent to the lake. A moment to put on his sunglasses. A glance over his shoulder. Nothing there. He felt rather than saw them. He crossed the street and continued on. The water was alive with sailboats and pedalos, the ferry leaving a broad wake as it steamed away from the pier toward Caprino, then into Italy.

In fact, Bildt was a sailor himself, and one of no small accomplishment. At eighteen, he had embarked on a solo voyage around the world, just him and his cat, Tango, in a twenty-six-foot sloop. The trip took three years. He survived by the grace of God and a preternatural instinct for danger. Then, it was in the form of an ability to sniff out storms, knowing when to go at them and when to seek shelter in port. Today, it was in the ability to gauge his masters' trust, or perhaps, more importantly, their lack of it.

Once again it was time to seek shelter in port.

They'd promised him somewhere warm and near the sea. More than that, he didn't know.

A hundred meters farther on he reached the building behind the casino, on Piazza Indipendenza. He took the stairs to the underground lot. It was a measure of his anxiety that he hesitated before remotely unlocking his car, and again as he climbed behind the wheel and pressed the starter button. If Carl Bildt was an adventurous man, he was not an entirely honest one.

Since coming to Lugano, he had taken actions as manager of the bank that did not wholly conform to the Swiss legal code. He was not the first. His predecessor had done the same. Such practices, Bildt was told, were standard operating procedure. All part of the job. He enjoyed his generous salary and the lifestyle it afforded him. An expensive car, a beautiful home, vacations sailing aboard his yacht. He knew better than to ask questions.

Lately, however, things had changed. It was getting harder to do what was asked. The sums were too large, coming too often. A kind of untamed financial river, overflowing its banks, growing more swollen by the day. And he, Carl Bildt, alone was tasked with taming it, with guiding it to calmer channels in distant lands.

Others had noticed. Authorities had begun to ask questions. Diverting so much "water" could not be accomplished without drawing notice.

And so, his dilemma.

Bildt left the parking lot and guided his car west alongside the lake. The meeting was scheduled for 7:30 at the Villa Principe Leopoldo, the city's finest hotel, situated on parklike grounds on a hilltop overlooking the lake. The meeting would be no different from any other he conducted with clients several evenings each week. An aperitif, an exchange of pleasantries, then down to business. He would hand over a dossier with the most recent statement of accounts. Tonight, however, the dossier would contain something extra. There would be a flash drive attached holding the information he had promised. Information valuable enough to guarantee him a new life. Then Carl Gustav Bildt would vanish.

Gone in the blink of an eye.

Or rather, the click of a keystroke.

The light turned red. Bildt slowed the car, stopping in front of the art and culture museum. A pale man in a dark blazer stood at the curb. Despite having the right of way, he did not cross the street. He was looking at Bildt's car, at Bildt himself.

The light changed. Bildt accelerated too quickly, leaving behind a patch of rubber. Calm down, he told himself. Everything was all right. The man hadn't been looking at him. Or had he? Bildt turned on the stereo. A bit of music to ease the nerves. Bach. The prelude to the first cello suite.

Leaving the lakeside, Bildt turned onto the winding road that climbed to the Villa Principe Leopoldo. He was rewarded with a view across the lake, mountains rising steeply from its shores on every side, the water sweeping in a great azure crescent south into Italy. For a moment, transported by the music, the vista, he allowed himself to drift off…to float across the water, to imagine that he had not turned his back on his entire life, that he would not be a fugitive for the rest of his days.

A look in the rearview mirror. A car drew close behind him. An Audi. Black. Two men inside. There was something about them. Bildt accelerated, taking the turns too quickly. The Audi matched his speed. Another look in the mirror. It was them. He knew it.

He saw the construction site at the last moment. Barriers blocked the road. Behind them stood a backhoe and a pile of gravel. He swung the car hard to the right, narrowly missing the blockade. Bildt shot down a one-way road, cars parked on either side, apartment buildings blocking out the sun. Ahead, a Beetle was stopped at the intersection. He braked and came to a stop behind it. And the Audi? Gone.

Bildt sighed. Nerves. Everything was fine. Just fine. A laugh. Relief.

Ahead, the door of the car opened. A man exited, looked his way, and ran up the road.

Bildt studied him. Odd. Why was he leaving his car? A moment passed before Bildt noted the urgency in the man's stride. It was, he decided, as if the man were running for his life.

Bildt knew everything at once. The Audi. The construction site. The car blocking his path.

A trap.

Bildt threw his car into reverse. His foot slammed the gas pedal to the floor. His head turned to look over his shoulder. A way out. He must find a way out.

Too late.

At that instant, fifty kilos of Semtex plastic explosive expertly packed in the car parked next to him detonated. The force of the blast obliterated the automobile, launching it twenty feet into the sky and sending deadly scads of metal in every direction. The fireball enveloped Bildt, roasting him alive. A piece of steel, rectangular, as sharp as a razor, flew through the open window of his car. Traveling at a velocity of five hundred feet per second, it struck Bildt an inch above his shoulders and passed through his neck, severing his head.

In the last fiery seconds of his life, Carl Gustav Bildt had the unique and mercifully brief experience of viewing his own torso wedged in the shattered windshield of his car as his head sailed through the air.

Chapter 2

Dez Hamilton was telling the story about how he found the one-hundred-million-dollar automobile.

"It was the smell that got me. Imagine…sitting in a barn for thirty years, a barn missing half its roof, one wall nothing but splinters. And this in the south of England, a mile from the coast. Owls, cormorants, gulls, you name it, shat all over it for years, winter, spring, summer, and fall. Think they call it 'guano' when there's that much of it. Like those rocks off the coast of Peru. An entire mountain of shit. You could have mined the stuff."

Hamilton paused to let his audience laugh along with him. He was sixty-something, a Londoner, a short, jolly toastmaster with tousled gray hair and rosy cheeks, dressed in the pink golf shirt he'd purchased at Pebble Beach Golf Links the day before. Desmond "Dez" Hamilton liked to say God had given him two gifts: how to hit a two-iron on a string and how to make gobs of money. Hamilton was in commodities. His company, Dreadnought Ltd., was the world's largest trader in precious metals.

It was three p.m. or thereabouts on a sun-drenched August afternoon in the Napa Valley. Hamilton, Simon Riske—Hamilton's automotive advisor and restoration expert—and an elegant French woman named Sylvie Bettencourt were seated in the private dining room of the French Laundry, the fabled three-star eatery. All were elevated by the aftereffects of eating as fine a meal as there ever was, washed down by several bottles of equally fine wine, and polished to a sheen by several flutes of Champagne. What better way to celebrate the sale of the 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO. The price: 102 million dollars and zero cents. The highest sum ever paid for a motor vehicle.

"Anyhow," Hamilton, the seller, continued, gathering steam, "I had no idea what it was. Some kind of rotted, rusting hulk. Thought it was farm machinery, to be honest. Didn't want to go near it. Did I mention the smell?" A laugh to raise the roof. "You see, it turned out the barn came with the estate. Had to get out of London. Too much for an old man these days. Traffic alone, God forbid. Takes an hour to get from Highgate to Bond Street. For the price of a three-bedroom flat overlooking the Thames, I got a three-thousand-hectare estate that had once belonged to the king himself—Henry the Eighth, no less.

"So there this thing was. Left it there for a month. Anyone could have pinched it. Course they could have done the last thirty years. Nothing stopping 'em. Still, I was curious. Came back for another look. That's when I saw the tires, I mean the spokes. Thought to myself, 'Hmm, rum, very rum indeed.' The old instincts kicked in. Money. I could smell it.

"Next time I was at the club, I passed this man's garage"—a nod in Simon's direction—"European Automotive Repair and Restoration. Went inside. Told him I might have found something and asked if he might have a look-see. 'Bring your rubber gloves,' I told him. 'And your Wellingtons.' Next day, he drove down. Walked right to the hood and swiped off a load of bird shit and voilà! There it was. The badge. Yellow and black with a prancing stallion. Ferrari. Ten minutes later he had the entire car cleaned off. Still didn't know what I was looking at."

"I had to tell Dez what it was," said Simon.

"Called it 'the Holy Grail,'" said Hamilton. "I said, 'What do you mean? I'm not the religious sort. Is it a car or a relic?'"

"'Both,' I told him," said Simon, flushed and as happy as he'd been in months. "He didn't understand until I told him what it was worth."

"Nearly pissed myself," said Hamilton. "Excuse me, Sylvie."

"I might have done something more," said Sylvie Bettencourt, the lilt of her accent making her words that much more amusing.

"Knew I loved this woman," roared Dez Hamilton. "Not just 'cause of the size of her pocketbook or her big—"

"Dez!" said Simon. No more DP for him.


Simon Riske had come to Northern California a week earlier for Monterey Car Week, the annual seven-day celebration of everything in the motoring universe. There were races and lectures and auctions and, of course, the Concours d'Elegance, a gathering of the world's finest automobiles on the eighteenth fairway at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Simon's arrival had been advertised in advance. The event catalogue sent to participants included an article discussing the discovery and subsequent restoration of the 1963 250 GTO, which it had named "the Lost Ferrari." It hinted that the car might be for sale and that a record price was expected. (The car was too coveted to be sold at auction. The wealthiest collectors made their bids in private, away from prying eyes.) Interested parties could find the car on display on the grounds of Quail Lodge.

There had been a sheikh, from the Al Maktoum ruling family of Dubai, who'd offered to take Simon into the desert for some falconry if he'd give his offer a favorable nudge. Bid: $80 million. A Swiss industrialist drawn all the way to California from his secret alpine lair who hadn't offered Simon anything except an icy glare and a few well-aimed clouds of smoke from his Cuban cigar. And a five-foot-tall Indian venture capitalist named Patel who'd made and lost a billion dollars on five separate occasions. Bid: $95 million.

In the end, though, there had been only one real bidder.

The woman seated across the table, whose ice-blue eyes held his gaze as if he were cuffed hand and foot.

Sylvie Bettencourt was sixty, maybe more, though she looked hardly a day older than he—white-blond hair cut to her shoulders, a sharp, inquisitive face. Too hard to be considered pretty, too proudly professional, but more attractive because of it. And yes, as Hamilton had pointed out, quite a figure.

Just as Simon was Dez Hamilton's agent in the sale, Bettencourt had acted in a similar capacity for a client who remained unnamed. Simon knew better than to ask who. He'd seen her over the years at auctions and concours and exhibitions. There was a time when she'd allowed herself to be outbid. Not any longer. Once Sylvie Bettencourt raised her hand, the sale was as good as done.

"But, Dez, tell us one more time why the car was deemed to be your property," Sylvie Bettencourt was saying. "It must have belonged to someone."

"Property of a chap in finance like me," said Hamilton, "except he was bent. Crooked. Owed the Inland Revenue millions. Hid the car in a friend's barn to keep it from being seized. Before things got sorted out, he topped himself. No heirs. Chap's estate paid off the back taxes. When I bought the property, the barn—and the car inside—came with it. Finders keepers. Mine to sell and yours to buy."

"Quite a story," said Sylvie Bettencourt.

"Couldn't make it up," said Hamilton with relish.

"Good for you," said Sylvie Bettencourt. "And good for me…or rather my client."

Simon might have added that the Ferrari, known by its chassis number, 3387, was the second of only thirty-six manufactured at the plant in Maranello, Italy. Designed by Sergio Scaglietti, the prototype tested by Stirling Moss, and powered by a Colombo V12 engine, it was a working thoroughbred that had achieved seventeen podiums, including a second place at the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans. "GTO" for gran turismo omologato—grand touring homologated. Simon had never learned what that last word meant.

3387 was painted racing red—"Ferrari red"—and had been restored to look precisely as it had that hot June day at Le Mans in 1963, the number 24 painted in black figures on a round white field on either door.

Inside, the car was stripped down to its essentials: a skeleton of exposed metal; safety bars; quilted leather bucket seats; steel instrument panel crowded to bursting; a bulky five-speed gearbox rising from the center console, a bony stick shift protruding from its cavity; a large, sturdy wooden steering wheel (giant by today's standards), the trademark yellow and black badge at its center.

Simon considered it the finest Ferrari ever designed. But not to look at. No, to look at, it was a gorgeous mutt. The nose—long, low, and curvaceous—was borrowed from the Jaguar E-type, which had thrilled the car world a year before. The resemblance ended there. The 250 GTO was a fastback, meaning the roof sloped sharply in the rear to a vertically chopped-off tail. It was a raw-boned street fighter clad in a prince's armor. A magnificent deception. Not entirely dissimilar to Simon himself.

Riske was pushing forty and looked it. He was fit, tall enough, his black hair cut short and receding at the temples far too quickly. He had a broad, lean face, a worker's jaw, cheeks nearly always dark with stubble. His father was American, his mother French. From her, he got the beryl-green eyes that women seemed to adore. If he heard someone say, "My, what lovely eyes you have," one more time, he'd throw up. Actually, he'd smile and say, "Thank you." He prided himself on being a gentleman. It had not always been the case.

The door to the dining room opened. Servers entered bearing dessert. Or, this being the French Laundry, desserts. There was panna cotta laced with summer fruits, chocolate cake, donuts and coffee, other pastries with names Simon couldn't guess, vanilla ice cream. They ate in delighted silence, punctuated by the occasional sigh. This is really too good.

Hamilton produced a leather case from his pocket. "Cigar? Romeo y Julieta from Havana. Sylvie? Simon?"

"Thank you but no," said Sylvie Bettencourt, bemused. It wasn't every day she was offered a cigar.

"Not a smoker, Dez," said Simon.

"You're missing out, the both of you." Hamilton repaired to the outdoor patio.

Bettencourt slid her chair closer to Simon's. "I've seen you at these things now and again. I'm surprised we've never met."

"Last year at Sotheby's. Battersea Park. The 270 Spyder. Sixty-two million, was it?"

"A bargain at the price."

"You have a good eye."

"I have help. What do I know about cars?"

They shared a look. The answer was "A lot" and they both knew it.

"And you, Mr. Riske, purchased a 1972 Dino. Six million, no?"

Simon laughed, taken aback. "I wouldn't have expected you to pay attention to that lot. A little below your standard."

"I paid attention to you, Mr. Riske."

"I'm flattered."

"I'm sure you're used to it. A man like you must have many admirers."

"Uh…" Actually, no. Simon didn't receive enough compliments to have a quick rejoinder.

She placed a hand on his. A perfectly manicured nail ran back and forth. She leaned closer. She had a secret to share. "It's come to my attention that restoring automobiles is not your only profession," she said softly, as if others were close by and might hear. "You handle different kinds of work, more interesting assignments, shall we say. You discovered a team of thieves robbing the casino at Monaco. Something about a tussle in Paris involving a Saudi prince that you sorted out. And didn't I hear something about a stolen Monet you removed from a yacht while it was at sea? Don't look so surprised. I have eyes and ears everywhere, Mr. Riske. Simon. Maybe I've been watching you longer than just a year. Word is that you are a resourceful man."

"I'm not sure what you've heard, but really, I spend most of my time at the garage."

The eyes narrowed, looking hard at him. A smile. A shake of the head. She wasn't having it. "I'd enjoy discussing it further. Maybe this evening if you're free."

"I'm here to help Dez. But I'm happy to give you my card."

"Oh, I know where to find you. I don't get to London as often as I'd like. Come back to the hotel. Nicer to talk about these things away from prying eyes. In private."

Simon couldn't mistake the promise in her eyes. Of what? Misbehavior? How to respond? She was, after all, the same age, or near enough, as his mother.

And yet…

The door to the patio swung open. Sunlight flooded the room. A stranger entered. Medium height, broad shoulders, pale complexion, dark hair. He wore a black V-neck T-shirt that showed off arms too muscular to ignore. He stood still as the door closed behind him.

"Excuse me," said Simon. "This is a private lunch."

"You, Riske," the man said, advancing on him, hand extended, pointed at him like a gun. "Shut up."

Chapter 3

Vadim, what is it?" Sylvie Bettencourt sat up straight. "Is everything all right?"

"Him," said the stranger, taking up position above Simon. "He lied to us."

Simon pushed back his chair and stood. A look at the man. Dead blue eyes. High cheekbones tapering to a sharp jaw. Colorless lips. "Who is this?"

"Vadim, please," said Sylvie, with authority. "You're being rude." She addressed Simon with politesse. "Meet Vadim. My assistant in all matters."

Simon did not extend his hand. Vadim looked like a snake. Venomous, make no mistake.

By now, Dez Hamilton, hearing the commotion, had returned. Cigar jutting from a corner of his mouth, jaw clenched, he looked every inch the seasoned trader. He knew when a deal was going south. "What's this, Simon?"

No answer. Not yet. "Well?" said Simon to the others, sudden adversaries.

"The car," said Vadim. "He lied to us. Something's missing. The gearbox. It's not the original."

The gearbox. Simon was unsure whether he should allow himself a measure of relief. "Of course it's not," he said. "It's a long-distance racer. They go through two every competition. I built it myself according to the original specs. Is there a problem?"

"You're lying," said Vadim. "That's the problem."

Sylvie Bettencourt asked to speak with her assistant privately. The two moved to a corner of the dining room. It was impossible to ignore Vadim's urgent imprecations.

Dez Hamilton poured himself a flute of Champagne too quickly, quaffing it as it overflowed. "Pray," he said to Simon, "that you didn't screw me."

"Pardon me, Dez?"

"I need that money, lad. Every last penny."

"Gearboxes break," said Simon. "3387 was a race car. They probably changed gearboxes three times that first year at Le Mans. Or at Sebring or Daytona. Just like they change out brakes, rotors, and sparks."

Unmollified, Hamilton poured himself another glass. When in doubt, self-medicate. He was officially in the enemy camp.

Sylvie returned to the table. "First, let's all of us remain calm. I'm sure we can work through the problem."

"Damn right we can," said Hamilton.

"Yesterday evening I wired 102 million dollars to your account, Dez, as payment for a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO, chassis 3387, certified by both of our inspection teams as 'highly original.'"

"The top mark given," said Simon.

The inspectors had come from Ferrari headquarters in Maranello, Italy. Both were career mechanics, more knowledgeable about Italian motorcars than any other person on the planet. Every part of the automobile was examined and judged for being original or as close to it as possible: engine, paint, coachwork, chassis, instrumentation. If the original part was impossible to restore, replacements were sourced from other models. Only then, if still unavailable, was Simon permitted to make his own replacement part. No certification process was more rigorous.

"Yet," Sylvie continued, "it has come to our attention that you did not choose to source the original gearbox."

"Like I said to Dez, it was most likely exchanged during a race. Gearboxes are interchangeable."

"So the original must be somewhere."

"Doubtful. Probably used for spare parts, melted down, or just on a junk heap."

"Not this one," said Sylvie. "Everyone knew this car was special, even then."

"Tell that to the mechanic in the pit when the gearshift snaps sixteen hours into a race," said Simon.

"Stop making excuses," said Vadim. "You didn't do your job and you know it."

Sylvie placed a hand on Vadim's arm. Down boy. "My buyer is a demanding man. He wants the original. He is an investor. He believes the value of the car will increase should it be found."

"He's not wrong. That's why my team scoured the world looking for it," said Simon. "Look, Madame Bettencourt…Sylvie…I spent fourteen months on this car. Believe me when I tell you that the gearbox cannot be found."

"The gearbox is out there," said Vadim. "The original. Someone has it."

"How do you know that?" said Simon.

"Someone contacted us," said Sylvie. "Someone we trust."


"A reliable source."

"Saying what?" demanded Simon. "That they have the gearbox? Nonsense."

"Not that they have it," said Sylvie. "Only that they've learned that someone else does."

"Does that someone have a name?"


  • One of the NY Post's best books of the week

    “Riske paints his characters in broad strokes, much in the manner of Ian Fleming in the Bond novels, giving us the big picture and letting us fill in the small details from our imaginations. In fact, comparison to the Bond novels is apt in many ways: the dashing spy, the snappy dialogue, the glamorous locales (in this case, Corsica, the French Alps, and Switzerland, among others). An entertaining escapist adventure.”Booklist
  • "Once a Thief is a good read and moves at a good clip. Reich’s readers who are fans of his previous Simon Riske books will enjoy this one and will look forward to Riske’s next adventure"—NY Journal of Books
  • "The exotic locales and plot twists, not to mention enough action to keep you turning each page, make Once A Thief an enjoyable experience."—BookReporter
  • “Heart-poundingReich combines great action with surprises readers won’t see coming. One doesn’t have to care much about cars or high finance to enjoy this cinematic thriller.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “Intricately plotted”—Kirkus Reviews
  • Praise for Chris Reich, and the Simon Riske series!—`
  • "An out-of-control joyride for those who like their heroes flawed, scarred, and on the edge. Reich has created an irresistible character that will leave readers both wincing and cheering with every page."

    Kyle Mills, #1 bestselling author of Fade and Rising Phoenix
  • "It's To Catch a Thief meets Jason Bourne: a stylish, jet-propelled thriller full of intriguing characters and surprising twists. Simon Riske is a character I'll want to meet again."
     —Jeff Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of Blame
  • "Likable, rascally, and suave, Riske is as distinctive as Reich's other series lead, Jonathan Ransom."

    Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Apr 4, 2023
Page Count
352 pages
Mulholland Books

Christopher Reich

About the Author

Christopher Reich is the New York Times bestselling author of The Take, Numbered Account, Rules of Deception, Rules of Vengeance, Rules of Betrayal, and many other thrillers. His novel The Patriots Club won the International Thriller Writers award for Best Novel in 2006. He lives in Encinitas, California.

Learn more about this author