2008 Short-Story Contest: 3rd place winner "Love Heist"
Published: January 12, 2009
What do you wear to an art heist? Jeans seemed too casual. Heels were out, in case I needed to run. Skirts were out too—what if I needed to climb in the window? I looked regretfully at my black wool turtleneck, but even at nine o'clock at night, it was still about ninety degrees outside. Sure, Fourth Street Gallery was air-conditioned, but just my luck I'd get heat stroke before I managed to pick the lock. My mother'd never let me hear the end of it.
She'd already said plenty regarding my breakup with my fiancé Maxwell LeQuilden, or That Artist, as she preferred to call him, as in "Lisa Anne Smithson, ever since you met That Artist ... ." I think the only person happier about the break-up was my boss at Lettuce Eat Sandwiches. Apparently, my loveless state vastly improves my sandwich-making capabilities, as I'm less likely to sign my name with the mustard bottle, or arrange the ruffled lettuce leaves and thin purple onion rings in a Georgia O'Keeffe tribute.
I pulled out a long-sleeved navy blouse. Perfect for a job interview at a bank, but for an art heist? Was navy truly the new black? My best friend Courtney would know—she was even better than Clinton and Stacy in figuring out The Rules of appropriate clothing in every situation—but there was no way I'd tell her how I planned to spend the first night of Maxwell's honeymoon. She'd kill me. Or worse, drag me to a bar with embarrassing drink names and even more embarrassing pick-up lines. I wasn't that desperate. Yet.
I sighed and pulled on a black T-shirt and linen pants. I looked like a washed-up Land's End model, not a sexy criminal. How did Angelina Jolie do it?
* * *
Three shoe changes (espadrilles, finally) and five blocks later, I slid my credit card along the door latch, the way the bad girls did in the movies. It didn't work. In fact, it almost broke my card. Quel disaster—my Visa's the only thing keeping me in California rolls and Diet Pepsi. I sighed and dug around in my bag. Flashlight, cell phone, wallet, pillowcase, PowerBar. Reluctantly, I pulled out the key. It felt like cheating to use it, but after the breakup, I guess I've become a little blasé on the whole cheating thing. I slipped the key in and wiggled it a bit like I'd seen Maxwell do. The door creaked open and I immediately fumbled around for the alarm to my right. Hmmm ... It was already off. Funny.
Fourth Street Gallery used to be a walk-in clinic—the waiting room up front now holds the larger sculptures, while the examining rooms are crowded with paintings. The whole place is still covered with this hideous industrial carpet and that mint green paint that only hospital administrators love.
I squinted, trying to adjust to the dim security lights in the gallery. I didn't want to use the flashlight unless absolutely necessary. I walked over near the front door and admired one of my favorite bronzes, a paunchy, bespectacled version of Michelangelo's "David." That's when I heard a noise, an OMG-is-that-a-burglar? squeak.
I almost stopped breathing. I should've just choked down the crumbs of my pride and marched in here during the light of day to retrieve my "stuff" as Maxwell had so gallantly suggested.
And that's when a gloved hand clasped over my mouth.
God, I thought, I'm going to be murdered right here in the gallery, my blood mixed in with all the other mysterious stains on this hideous carpet. Maxwell! This was all his fault. If he had just broken up with me normally, instead of letting me—
The male voice sounded genuinely apologetic. "I am going to move my glove away. I don't want to hurt you, really. Just want to get a few paintings and then be gone, quicker than Quicken. Ready?"
"Hel—" I turned to face my assailant as I yelled.
The glove reappeared swiftly over my mouth. It felt almost—I swear—gentle. Great—the last considerate murderer on earth.
My attacker wasn't wearing a mask of any kind, unless you count his five o'clock shadow. It made a striking contrast to his carefully combed curls and his wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a dark suit, no tie. A grown-up Doogie Howser, I thought approvingly, and then chastised myself. You're about to be murdered, Lisa. Concentrate!
"I've got to do this or Justine will be very upset. Please don't make any noise. Promise?"
"Justine?" I managed to whisper when the gloved hand came off. I looked towards the hallway. I could see one of Maxwell's abstract oils hanging in the hallway, the kind of murky image you might see during a bad dream, when the rain is banging against your window and your fiancé is banging his new—
I took a deep breath. "Why are you here?"
"I could ask you the same thing." He seemed amused.
We stared at each other for a long moment and then my cell phone rang. Well, not rang exactly, more like belted out the first notes of "Rocky."
My cheeks burned and I silently cursed my friend Courtney who had decided that there was nothing like a boxing theme song to perk a heartbroken someone right up. I'd kill her when I got home tonight, assuming I was still alive.
"Aren't you going to answer that?" he asked.
I peeked in my bag at the cell phone display. Mother. Figures. I shook my head. "Don't try to change the subject. Aren't you going to answer my question?"
"Why are you here, Rob?"
"Rob? My name isn't—"
"But it suits you, don't you think? Your profession? My name's Lisa."
Rob sighed. I almost felt sorry for him, here to do a quick little art heist and instead being interrogated by one of his own kind.
"I'm ... um, stealing some paintings."
"No kidding. Which ones?"
He pulled out his BlackBerry from his suit pocket. "Let's start with 'Justine's Breast.' Know it?"
I nodded. "It's down the hall. Why?"
"It's on the list."
It was my turn to sigh. "You expect me to believe that Justine's paying you to rob her husband's gallery? Why wouldn't Justine just sell the paintings to one of her rich friends?"
Rob paused. "Well, actually ... "
"Oh my God. That's brilliant." Everyone knows that the best way to increase the value of art is for the artist to die, but of course she couldn't let her honey make that sacrifice quite yet. But if his paintings were stolen, were thought to be highly valued in the underground art market ...
"So what happens next? You take the paintings and ... ?"
He squirmed. "The theft is reported to the police, the papers pick it up ... "
"'Missing Paintings Worth Thousands.'"
Rob nodded. "The remaining paintings go up in value and when the missing ones show up, there will be more media coverage, more free publicity."
I started to walk towards the first room, but after about two steps, I decided he should walk in front. I told him it was because I was afraid he was armed, but really, linen pants wrinkle. A lot.
He chuckled. "Armed? Not unless you count the mechanical pencil in my coat pocket. I'm an accountant down at Bixbey's."
"And what? They're not paying you enough?"
"It's not the money ..." Now it was his turn to look embarrassed. "On the weekends, I'm ... um ... writing a mystery novel and I uh ... thought that, well ..."
I laughed. I couldn't help it. "You're doing research?"
He cringed. "It's not like that ... well, yes."
I stopped in front of The Painting. That's how I thought of it still, even months later. Maxwell never seemed that passionate about his paintings before. But this ... I gazed at the zealous blue curves, purple spirals, and the red zigzags that seemed to be bursting from the center of the canvas. It still hurt to look at it.
"Are you OK?"
I started to nod, but out of the corner of my eye I see my paintings, my paintings, heaped in a pile in the corner, looking like so much dirty laundry.
Christ. Tears had started forming in my eyes. I practically get murdered not a half hour before and I show no emotion whatsoever, but standing in front of some stupid painting and I'm like on a permanent rinse cycle. "No, no, it's nothing," I blubbered.
Rob looked around frantically and did the logical thing when confronted with a sobbing art thief—he grabbed a beautiful hand-dyed silk scarf draped over a coat rack and handed it to me. I glanced at the price tag. Seventy-eight dollars, plus tax. "Are you crazy?" I pushed away the scarf and knelt down. I picked up the top painting, "Spring Picnic." I could almost feel the breeze rustling through the trees and the warmth of the sun on the lake. Lake Stanley, actually, the place where Maxwell and I had our first yes-it's-really-a-date date.
Then suddenly the whole story gushed out. How we met (he modeled for my intermediate drawing class), how he showed an interest in my art, how I worked at the sandwich shop to support my art, how I loved watercolors best because you can't really see where one thing ends and another begins and how it's so easy to start over with just a little dab at the wet paint.
I don't even think I paused for a breath until I noticed Rob looking at me, concerned.
"So this Justine," he asked, "she was the one who ... "
I nodded. "She's rich and Maxwell would do anything to be an artist." Or do anyone. I looked into Rob's eyes. "Justine believes in supporting the arts, one man at a time."
"And one day you found them ... together?"
"Worse." I let my eyes travel up to 'Justine's Breast'. "I saw it in the gallery window." I bit my lip. "I didn't know ... He never wanted to paint me."
Rob seemed to contemplate this for a few minutes. "Well, Lisa, we've got a problem."
"I need to steal these paintings—I promised I would—plus Justine might, uh, kill me if I don't comply." He managed a smile. "Not that an attempt on my life wouldn't be a bonus for my research, but ... "
I looked around the gallery. "What if you couldn't find the paintings?"
"What? She'll know I'm lying. They're all here and labeled." He pointed to the paper card stuck into the corner of one frame.
"No, they're not."
I pulled the card out and stuck it in my bag. "Nope. When you got here, all the paintings were unlabeled." I plucked another card, then another. "Don't you see? You don't know which paintings to steal, so you took the ones you thought were the best. You know, the ones that would bring in the most money."
A slow smile spread over Rob's face as he picked up "Summer Picnic." "This looks pretty good to me."
I nodded. "Thanks. I think all the watercolors in this pile might fetch a lot." I slid the paintings carefully into the pillowcase I'd brought. "In fact, This Artist—whoever she is—is a genius. I heard she used to work in a sandwich shop until a sudden windfall let her work on her art full time."
Rob raised an eyebrow. "You don't say."
"I do." I grinned and opened the gallery door, beckoning Rob to follow. "I do, I do, I do!"
--Posted Jan. 12, 2009